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  • Totality and the CommonHenri Lefebvre and Maurice Blanchot on Everyday Life
  • Jen Hui Bon Hoa (bio)

The “everyday,” defined as that which escapes regimes of signi-fication and bureaucratic regulation, is often considered subversive because it disrupts totalizing narratives and calls forth new political practices and subject positions. Although Henri Lefebvre is generally cited as the principal theorist of everyday life, this particular definition is clearly modeled on Maurice Blanchot’s and, later, Michel de Certeau’s ideas—which, I seek to demonstrate, are fundamentally at odds with Lefebvre’s.1 A notion of the everyday as purely a source of ontological or epistemological instability can accommodate neither Lefebvre’s sociological critique of it, nor his vision for its transformation. The association of the everyday with resistance to representation nonetheless seems to derive from a partial reading of Lefebvre, who famously describes the everyday as an indeterminate “residue,” defined negatively by exclusion from special events and activities. In the neglected, second part of this definition, however, Lefebvre adds that the everyday thus constitutes a “common ground” that, in relating these specific experiences and practices to one another, enables us to conceive of lived reality as an organic whole (2008a, 97). This dialectic of residue and common ground underpins Lefebvre’s approach to everyday life.

Lefebvre’s foregrounding of everyday life as a site of commonality speaks to a conception of critical theory as that which makes connections between disparate elements of social life and disciplinary approaches to its analysis, thus furthering the understanding of the social totality. Committed to a revolutionary political project, Lefebvre believes theory’s role is to orient individual practices in local contexts by mapping, as far as possible, the historical and global horizon of [End Page 54] political activity. While recent discussions of everyday life tend to offer one-dimensional attacks on the coercive nature of totalizing theories, Lefebvre’s approach first rebuts the opposition of totality and difference that condition such attacks and then draws attention to what is lost with an outright dismissal of the notion of totality. Understood dialectically, totality emerges not as a deterministic theory of history or society but as a heuristic that illuminates relationships between conditions and effects, personal experience and institutions. For Lefebvre, totality is a hermeneutic context that allows difference to become visible and meaningful, rather than one that suppresses difference in order to defend a teleology or unitary definition of society.2

From this definition of the common in terms of social totality arises a second set of ideas about the relationship between commonality and political practice. As is often forgotten, Lefebvre’s critique of everyday life is a critique specifically of the privatization of everyday life. In response to a perceived depoliticization during the prosperous post-war years, expressed by a general disengagement from the public sphere and loss of faith in collective action, Lefebvre identifies in the common ground of everyday life a possible source of solidarity. It is by producing a critical discourse of everyday life—by turning residual, untheorized everyday experience into communicable experience (Erlebnis into Erfahrung, to use Walter Benjamin’s terms)—that one can reframe ostensibly private and individual experiences in terms of a collective struggle.

In this essay, I begin by examining the disjunctions between Lefebvre’s and Blanchot’s notions of everyday life, and show how the latter has dictated the terms of Lefebvre’s reception in Anglo-American scholarship. I then focus on the overlooked question of the common in Lefebvre’s theory of everyday life as a way of mediating between his approach and Blanchot’s. Whereas Blanchot is unequivocal in his rejection of totality, he echoes Lefebvre’s insistence on dismantling the idea of the self-identical, atomized subject and articulating a mode of collective existence. For both writers, this engagement with the question of the common anchors their claims to the political significance of the everyday. It is, however, a very different notion of the common and, consequently, of politics, that emerges from their two theories. By examining the idea of the common in Lefebvre’s critique of everyday life and in Blanchot’s reworking of it, I identify two models of political [End...


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pp. 54-78
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