Alien UndergroundBook Reviews

Raoul Vaneigem: Movement of the Free Spirit (Review 1995)

Review of:
Raoul Vaneigem:
Movement of the Free Spirit
(Zone Books 1994)
Published in Alien Underground 0.1, 1995

Raoul Vaneigem resigned from the Situationist International (SI) in 1970 amidst the usual acrimony and accusations – of which the most damaging was that he decided to take a vacation during the upheaval that was May ’68. However, it’s safe to say that with the possible exception of Basic Banalities, Vaneigem’s writing was the most widely read and disseminated of all SI texts which is probably all the more reason for the SI to discredit such a potential influential critic. Renowned for its quotability, excerpts from Revolution of Everyday Life turned up everywhere in numerous pirate editions, anarchist magazines, and even as lyrics to a Royal Family and the Poor track on a Factory Quartet in 1981. Part of the reason for this attraction, which comes through in Movement of the Free Spirit, is that Vaneigem sees the value of making his writing accessible and unencumbered by theoretical jargon – it was his notion that it’s not a question of knowledge but of its use that was always subtly dangerous and still has the power to open up, however quietly, further passages into a critique of the SI and other leftist and academic practices. In contrast to these icy and self-alienated milieus Vaneigem’s writing , with it’s later push towards a politics of desire and discussion of the individualist/collectivist dilemma provides further reason for its applicability – the emotional, ‘end of tether’ style of writing tapped into an intuitive and inchoate desire for rebellion, where it was made explicit that power relations were implicit in the most innocuous of everyday situations. Many of these ideas have been about before and since Vaneigem – e.g. Foucault’s notion of a ‘micro-physics’ of power, Bataille’s work on sovereignty and Lefebvre’s investigations into the everyday – but his non-scholastic approach, his breaching of categorisation and the spectre of a praxis for his words cast him adrift from the academy and into the back pocket of scallies.

With the Movement of the Free Spirit we see Vaneigem presenting and contextualising a subjective investigation into heretical groups operating throughout Europe between 1200 and 1500. Whilst such a work can be construed as simply archeological and not as all embracing as Norman Cohen’s Pursuit of the Millenium it is perhaps by drawing on motivations present in previous works, particularly the Book of Pleasures, that Vaneigem gives to this book a combative approach. By demonstrating the interpretation of religion and economics (ecclesiastical mercantilism) Vaneigem fleshes out a link between belief and profit that is crucial to any system of power – the first owners and organisers of labour… enclosed their basic economic practice within the reliquary of transcendence, they placed the universal measure of things and being securely in the hands of the gods, out of reach of an ephemeral earthly destiny. He charts the rise of the Christian church that grew economically from being able to profit from the fear of death and the desire fro pleasure (i.e. making money out of belief) into a trans-national institution of cultural domination that, through a control over language and interpretation, conditioned minds and governed behaviour. The critique of religion is a critique of ideology. However, such a power is not all pervasive and whilst a notion of Christian unity is handed down to us as a seamless ‘middle ages’ Vaneigem presents the Free Spirit as preparing the way for all unbelieving through their challenge to the authority of church and state, orthodoxy and exchange.

The yardstick of Vaneigem’s interest and enthusiasm for the Free Spirit lies in a notion developed during the days of the SI – that our existence under capitalism is nothing other than survival and a more fulfilled life only begins when we cast off the economic yoke and take our desires for reality. The alliance of pleasure and lucidity that was the Free Spirit is, for Vaneigem, one such sign of life: in most instances the various sects refused work and refused to acknowledge the authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchies; they had a scorn for possessions and often started out as movements of voluntary property; they had a burgeoning critique of money and the outline of a politics of abortion; they renounced sin and hence felt no guilt when they indulged in sensual pleasure or robbery. In the words of inquisitors it was documented that they claimed to be god – in this way, through self-deification, the free spirit announced the death of god and in some ways prefigured the work of Nietzsche centuries later. The self deification was tied up to self-love and a working on yourself that goes against the main tenet of religion (as preserved in other ideologies) that self sacrifice, guilt, deferred pleasure and body-hatred are the by words. Not only this but Vaneigem notes how the Free Spirit, like the Ranters and Diggers of 17C England, called for paradise now a heaven on earth – the end to personal and collective powerlessness that is instilled in the notion of the hereafter. This desire for immediacy implies a renunciation of abstraction and for Vaneigem it is in abstraction that the ultimate and initial form of the divine can be found. This leads us to uncover further reasons for his investigations as it is Vaneigem’s contention that alongside the division between life and survival there is a further division between the intellect and the body (the rise of the soul with the body as labour power). This reduction of existence to thought is typified, for Vaneigem, by the way that ideologies take on an illusory power and obstruct action. In this way the Free Spirit almost rediscovered the body through a pursuit of pleasure that transgressed the religious insistence that the body was somehow base material surpassed by divinity (soul, God, etc.) To this end, for many Free Spirit sects it was not just a matter of disseminating theories, but of carrying out their beliefs in practice (as communes, through the body). Certain of these sects had a suspicion for parchment and inquisitors noted with fear that they often communicated in the venacular – which led their ideas to be taken up by the dispossessed or ‘simple people’ as they were called at the time.

In these and other ways the Free Spirit’s pursuit of pleasure cut into the basic doctrines of a church that was laying the groundwork for the rise of the modern state. The repression that was meted out against these heresies have since become part of the machinations of modern totalitarianism – be it the show trials of Stalin, nazi book-burnings, the witch hunts of McCarthy, the mass arrests in Italy ’77 or, more recently, as the Criminal Justice Act – all of which exhibit a ‘normalising judgement’ and the action of a power ‘that assumes the task of individualising and penetrating the interior’. Through these parallels, like the persistence of religion in modern times, are explicit, Vaneigem finds other points of contemporaneity: a priestly odour in the modern movements of political salvation (the whiter than white gleam of revolutionary virtue), a religious core to philosophy where the myth of original sin metamorphoses into ontological suffering – always guilt, historical finality and powerlessness. On the former point Vaneigem seems weary of any collective endeavour where there is a sacrifice to some ‘abstract’ ulterior goal, a reluctance to be anything for oneself and this could be seen as a sideswipe at the later practice of the SI as increasingly centralised/ neo-bolshevik and mediated through theoretical concerns.

Of course there are problems to be encountered within the Movement of the Free Spirit : the positing of a pre-capitalist paradise; a kind of ideological reading of the Free Spirit texts; the division of life and survival as polarities without ‘fuzzy’ areas. But in regard to the practice of the Free Spirit perhaps the main debating point is the degree to which the pursuit of pleasure can attain a violence against others (de Sade et al) for Vaneigem has previously stated that to adventure erotically with children is inseparable from loving oneself and loving life (1). There is an obvious danger here in that the ‘actualisation of desire’ can boomerang back if it is left to fester in isolation without the grounding that any ‘subjectivity’ is cut through with ‘collectivity’ – the watchword should surely be that ‘the practice of happiness is subversive when it becomes collective’ (2).

(1) Raoul Vaneigem – Book of Pleasures, p 86 [Pending Press London 1983]
(2) Radio Alice Free Radio – Autonomia p 133 [Semiotext(e) 1980]

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3 thoughts on “Raoul Vaneigem: Movement of the Free Spirit (Review 1995)

  • I am writing a book about Vaneigem and have read every article about him in every paper and e-zine since the sixties in both French and English. This is definitely one of the best that has been written. I think you may also enjoy this one on the same subject:

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