Excerpt: 'The Beach Beneath the Street' by McKenzie Wark


Henri Lefebvre, Old Lutheran Church, Amsterdam, 1971 (CC)

From Chapter 8: The Thing of Things

Henri Lefebvre is swimming in the ocean one sunny day. He is alone, and the waves are choppy. He swims far, far out from the shore. Clouds obscure the sun. Anxiety grips him. He turns back. While swimming hard against the rip, a vision unfolds, born of real danger, and of quite a different order to the spectacle of waves and sun. It becomes “a shifting totality, roaring, buffeting, overwhelming: the sea.” He no longer looks at the waves, he is among them, “each new one taking up the terrifying void left by its forerunner.” And yet this ocean of danger is not formless void. “The duration of each wave is strictly determined by its objective logic, which leaves us with an indeterminable wealth of contingencies, accidents, appearances, and—I was about to say—ornaments. Logic and splendor. Before me, around me, I have space-time.”

Henri Lefebvre (1901–91) was a contemporary of Jacques Lacan (1901–81), but their trajectories could not be more different. In the late twentieth century, Lacan would become the king of secular bourgeois thought, raising the practice of psychoanalysis to a high pitch of Delphic profundity. Meanwhile, Lefebvre would leave the Communist Party by the rarely used leftward exit. Lacan sought to acquire the dignity of the status of philosopher; Lefebvre pushed philosophy out into the streets. And while Lefebvre was at his most influential in the blazing years of the 1960s, Lacan would eclipse him in the long dark decades that followed.

If there is one abiding purpose to psychoanalysis, it is to make bourgeois lives seem fascinating, at least to those who live them. That it is a form of bourgeois thought is attested by the status of the real in Lacanian doctrine. The real is always something terrible, formless, lawless, which the symbolic order tries to shield from awareness, but which keeps slithering in, unbidden. It is a modern version of the serpents that in Jorn’s account Apollonian thought has to slay, again and again. The symbolic preserves for the ruling class, to whom it classically belongs, an order that keeps at bay the self-ornamenting powers of nature and labor, working together, writhing and worming their way into the cracks in Apollonian form.

In Lefebvre the real is the fulcrum of action rather than an apprehension of terror. His vision of it comes to him while swimming against the current, the body acting on raw need to survive. “The real can only be grasped and appreciated via potentiality.” It is by attempting to transform everyday life that the contours of the real are encountered. The real is not entirely formless, even if its forms are not an order that reveals itself in the clear light of day. The encounter with the real, because it is active, informs the imaginary. From the struggle in and with the real emerges an imagining of what might be possible. The object of study for both Lacan and Lefebvre is in a sense always everyday life, but in Lefebvre study is a stage in the project of transforming it.

Excerpt republished with permission of the publisher. Copyright © 2011 Verso Books and McKenzie Wark

Read an interview with McKenzie Wark here