Philosophizing the everyday

The following presents a genealogy and critique of the concept of the ʻeverydayʼ, looking at the philosophical, political and cultural conflicts and contexts which radically transformed its contents after the Russian Revolution from a term synonymous with the ʻdailyʼ and ʻcontingentʼ to one identifiable with the vicissitudes of cultural and social transformation and democratization. It aims to bring into focus the revolutionary prehistory of the ʻeverydayʼ, at a time when this prehistory has been all but forgotten, and the concept has been largely disconnected from questions of social agency. As such it concentrates on the two major cultural-national formations which gave ideological shape and direction to the emergence of the concept before its assimilation into cultural studies proper in the 1970s: the German–Soviet debates in Marxist philosophy and culture from 1910 to 1939, and the postwar reconstruction of the concept in the new Marxism and the arrival of cultural studies in France after World War II. Customarily the German–Soviet debates are written up in the histories of Western Marxism as no more than a thematic ground plan for the postwar ʻinventionʼ of the everyday.1 Here I am interested in digging out its variegated uses, temporalities and critical lineages, in order to restore an expanded understanding of the term. My point, however, is not to diminish the postwar theorization of the everyday in France, but to problematize its history and incorporation into contemporary cultural studies.

In this regard, the identification between Henri Lefebvreʼs writing on the effects of postwar commodi- fication and consumption and the critique of ʻeverydayʼ life is only half the story, as Lefebvreʼs prewar work testifies. The narrative in contemporary cultural studies for which the ʻeverydayʼ (der Alltag) originates in Lukácsʼs and Heideggerʼs early writing as a term of derogation, and is transformed, in Lefebvre, Barthes and the Situationist International into a term identifiable with the demands of cultural and social transformation is partial, not to say misleading. The shifts in cultural and critical usage of the term are far more complex and open to dispute than this familiar version of events would suggest. 

After the Russian Revolution, Lukácsʼs early existential marriage between ʻeveryday lifeʼ (Alltag lebens) and ʻinauthenticʼ experience, with all its affectations of late Romantic ennui, was subject to a massive cultural and political haemorrhaging.2 Indeed it was the impact of the Russian Revolution that propelled Lukács to question (if not wholly reject) his earlier writing and embrace the critical immanence of ʻeveryday lifeʼ. Furthermore, this political revision of the concept intersects with the earlier development of psychoanalysis and its ʻsecularizationʼ of human consciousness in the conflicts of everyday experience. Although neither cognitively nor politically convergent, psychoanalysis and Soviet revolutionary politics produce a comparable denaturalization of the everyday. Freud substituted the interpretation of everyday speech for neurological diagnosis in the treatment and understanding of the perturbations of psychic life and illness, requiring the physician actively to listen to the experiences of the patient;3 and for the first time in human history the Bolshevik seizure of power was able to break the link between the collective experience of the dominated and religious and cultural fatalism. As a consequence one should not underestimate the utopian content of the Russian embrace of the ʻeverydayʼ; from 1917 the ʻeverydayʼ(byt) in Soviet culture was subject to an extraordinary theoretical elaboration and scrutiny. 

A good illustration of this are Trotskyʼs writings from the early 1920s in Pravda, first collected in English under the title of Problems of Life in 1924 (and republished as The Problems of Everyday Life in 1973).4 In this collection and other writings up until his exile in 1928, Trotsky returns again and again to the ʻeverydayʼ, as the focus of the achievements of the Revolution and the site where the Revolution is to be defended and deepened. As the focus of the working classʼs cultural and spiritual development, ʻthe everydayʼ is where the revolution is to be made and remade in accordance with the new conditions of socialist construction.

The older generation, which is more and more diminishing, learned communism in the course of a class struggle; but the new generation is destined to learn it in the elements of construction, the elements of construction of everyday life. 5

Trotsky was following Leninʼs directive to the Party to shift its energies after the consolidation of power from political work to cultural work, or rather, to the transformation of political work into cultural work. This provided an expanded space for the analysis and theorization of the everyday, culture, the national question and gender. Alexandra Kollantaiʼs work in the 1920s on sexuality, marriage and everyday life was exemplary of this shift, even if the ʻgendering of the everydayʼ was largely absent from the theorization of the ʻeverydayʼ until the 1970s.6



Thanks to Peter Osborne and Esther Leslie for their comments.

1. See, for example, the work of Kristin Ross: ʻFrench Quotidianʼ in Lynn Gumpert, ed., The Art of the Everyday: The Quotidian in Postwar French Culture, New York University Press, New York, 1997; and Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1995.

2. Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, Merlin Press, London 1971.

3. Freudʼs The Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in 1901. As Freud was to say in 1890 in ʻPsychical (or Mental) Treatmentʼ, ʻWords are the essential tool of mental treatment … for the words which we use in our everyday speech are nothing other than watered-down magicʼ (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, Vol. 11, Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, London, 1953–74, p. 283).

4. Leon Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life, and Other Writings on Culture and Science, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1973.

5. Trotsky, ʻHow to Beginʼ, in ibid., p. 70.

6. Alexandra Kollantai, ʻMarriage and Everyday Lifeʼ, in Alexandra Kollantai: Selected Writings, translated, introduced and commentaries by Alix Holt, Allison & Busby, London, 1977.

⤓ Click here to download the PDF of this item