Summary of Chapter 2: Humiliation
This is the first of five chapters on “the mechanisms of attrition and destruction,” which render “participation” “impossible,” through “power” as a “sum of constraints." The five mechanisms are humiliation, isolation, suffering, work, and decompression.
V’s summary of this chapter:
The economy of daily life is based on a continual exchange of humiliations and aggressive attitudes. It conceals a technique of attrition itself prey to the gift of destruction which paradoxically it invites (1). Today, the more man is a social being, the more he is an object (2). Decolonisation has not yet begun (3). It will have to give a new value to the old principle of sovereignty (4). (29)
He begins with an example of Rousseau being ridiculed by villagers:
Aren’t most of the trivial incidents of daily life like this ridiculous adventure? But in an attenuated and diluted form, reduced to the duration of a step, a glance, a thought, experienced as a muffled impact, a fleeting discomfort barely registered by consciousness and leaving in the mind only a dull irritation at a loss to discover its own origin?
“Humiliation” for V is about the micropolitics of interpersonal interaction, microaggressions in particular, along with the “timid retreats, brutal attacks,” the momentary failures and embarrassments which constitute the sort of war of everyday interaction in a meaningless society.
All we can do is enclose ourselves in embarrassing parentheses; like these fingers (I am writing this on a cafe terrace) which slide the tip across the table and the fingers of the waiter which pick it up, while the faces of the two men involved, as if anxious to conceal the infamy which they have consented to, assume an expression of utter indifference. (30)
There is an economy of insults: “From the point of view of constraint, daily life is governed by an economic system in which the production and consumption of insults tends to balance out.” He places this economy of insults in relation to the claimed victory of capitalism over the loss of a sense that the state socialisms formed any kind of real alternative. He calls for an economy of the gift to replace the stale and soulsucking capitalist model of exchange
In fact, a truly new reality can only be based on the principle of the gift. Despite their mistakes and their poverty, I see in the historical experience of workers’ councils (1917, 1921, 1934, 1956), and in the pathetic search for friendship and love, a single and inspiring reason not to despair over present “reality.” Everything conspires to keep secret the positive character of such experiences; doubt is cunningly maintained as to their real importance, even their existence. By a strange oversight, no historian has ever taken the trouble to study how people actually lived during the most extreme revolutionary movements. (31)
There are two sides to the point he is making. On the one hand, the economic relations of life (exchange in capitalism, control in state socialism) are seen as entering into the logic of everyday interpersonal interaction, transforming it to match the image of society. At the same time, everyday life is more the engine of real revolution than the surface form of worker’s councils, etc. Even the “pathetic search for friendship and love” is of the same material or force as revolutionary actions. Cynicism about the importance of such yearnings plays a role in keeping everyone docile and accepting, because there is no alternative.
He celebrates the violence of anarchist terrorists, but also murderers like Lacenaire, etc. as the “concave form of the gift” motivated by rejection of “relationships based on exchange and compromise” and “hierarchical social community.” V does not agree with murder, but wants to seize the emotional passion and rejection that motivates murderers like Lacenaire. Revolutionary tactics must have collective attraction (not just radically individual like Ravachol, the Bonnot gang, etc.); they must “attract collectively the individuals whom isolation and hatred for the collective lie have already won over to the rational decision to kill or to kill themselves” (31-2).
No murderers – and no humanists either! The first accepts death, the second imposes it. Let ten people meet who are resolved on the lightning of violence rather than the agony of survival; from this moment, despair ends and tactics begin. Despair is the infantile disorder of the revolutionaries of daily life. (32)
[Propaganda by the deed] is effective in that it exposes the workings of power:
Hierarchical social organisation is like a gigantic racket whose secret, exposed precisely by anarchist terrorism, is to place itself out of reach of the violence it gives rise to, by consuming everybody’s energy in a multitude of irrelevant struggles.
The uneasiness of handshakes, of eye contact:
When our eyes meet someone else’s they become uneasy, as if they could make out their own empty, soulless reflection in the other person's pupils. Hardly have they met when they slip aside and try to dodge one another; their lines of flight cross at an invisible point, making an angle whose width expresses the divergence, the deeply felt lack of harmony. (33)
A whole ethic based on exchange value, the pleasures of business, the dignity of labour, restrained desires, survival and on their opposites, pure value, gratuitousness, parasitism, instinctive brutality and death: this is the filthy tub that human faculties have been bubbling in for nearly two centuries. From these ingredients -refined a little of course – the cyberneticians are dreaming of cooking up the man of the future. (33-4)
[This is one of several references to “cyberneticians” planning a future perfect society, perhaps what he means when he says capitalism will end in a planned economy, that would put the paltry Soviet model to shame.]
The feeling of humiliation is nothing but the feeling of being an object. Once understood as such, it becomes the basis for a combative lucidity in which the critique of the organisation of life cannot be separated from the immediate inception of the project of living differently. Construction can begin only on the foundation of individual despair and its transcendence; the efforts made to disguise this despair and pass it off under another wrapper are proof enough of this, if proof were needed. (34)
He then adds:
What is the illusion which stops us seeing the disintegration of values, the ruin of the world, inauthenticity, non-totality?
The link between humiliation and this question is objectification: the illusion is happiness—not yours, because you aren’t happy—but that of others, whom you suspect to be happy, and envy.
To define oneself by reference to others is to perceive oneself as other. And the other is always object. Thus life is measured in degrees of humiliation. The more you choose your own humiliation, the more you ‘live’ the more you live the orderly life of things. Here is the cunning of reification, the means whereby it passes undetected, like arsenic in the jam. (34-5)
So being envious of others turns you into an object (you self-objectify), and you thus become a thing. This is the “gentle” oppression of the [post-modern liberal-capitalist state]:
The gentleness of these methods of oppression throws a certain light on the perversion which prevents me from shouting out "The emperor has no clothes" each time my sovereignty over daily life is exposed in all its poverty. (35)
So “My Sovereignty” is perhaps the illusion of agency or heroism, or whatever the belief in the subject is or that it should have (the dream of real liberation or individual sovereignty a la Stirner), but in capitalism, there is only a mockery, a shadow version. Would shouting about the nakedness of “the emperor” (which is you, but in third person, or “your sovereignty” separated from you and treated like an object) be some dialectic of separating the objectified self, of disarticulating the abstract subject? The subject of the statement being separated from the subject of enunciation? In any event he feels this shock of humiliation and objectification is one the one hand the effective means of oppression, but also a first step to the development of [critique] and [the whole master-servant dialectic of liberation].
The new-style police are already with us, waiting to take over. Psychosociological cops have need neither of truncheons nor of morgues. Oppressive violence is about to be transformed into a host of equitably distributed pinpricks. (35)
Humanism is taken to task as more of a [loyal opposition] than a real challenge, and itself a pacifying illusion. He returns to the point that even apparently superficial or minor humiliations and angers are in fact important, perhaps moreso than those that are supposed to me most significant:
There are no negligible irritations: gangrene can start in the slightest graze. The crises that shake the world are not fundamentally different from the conflict in which my actions and thoughts confront the hostile forces that entangle and deflect them.
Sooner or later the continual division and re-division of aggravations will split the atom of unlivable reality and liberate a nuclear energy which nobody suspected behind so much passivity and gloomy resignation. That which produces the common good is always terrible. (35-6)
Colonialism has played a role as a useful enemy for the left, as an acknowledged evil they can criticize without being able to actually do anything about:
FROM 1945 to 1960, colonialism was a fairy godmother to the left. With a new enemy on the scale of fascism, the left never had to define itself (there was nothing there); it was able to affirm itself by negating something else. In this way it was able to accept itself as a thing, part of an order of things in which things are everything and nothing. (36)
After the “end of colonialism” (which is just a change of stance, since it has not ended). the left has turned to anti-racism, etc.; but V dismisses these concerns as just phenomena of humiliation, which is the core of it all.
Aime Cesaire made a famous remark: “The bourgeoisie has found itself unable to solve the major problems which its own existence has produced: the colonial problem and the problem of the proletariat.” He forgot to add: “For they are one and the same problem, a problem which anyone who separates them will fail to understand.” (37)
On the subject of “sovereignty” he makes a Stirneresque/Nietzschian sort of argument (reminiscent also of the debate on kings in For Whom the Bell Tolls):
Today France contains twenty-four million mini-kings, of which the greatest - the bosses - are great only in their ridiculousness. The sense of respect has become degraded to the point where the right to humiliate is all that it demands. Democratised into public functions and roles, the monarchic principle floats belly up, like a dead fish: only its most repulsive aspect is visible. Its will to be absolutely and unreservedly superior has disappeared. Instead of basing our lives on our sovereignty, we try to base our sovereignty on other people's lives. The manners of slaves. (37)