Ordinary resistance and daily life

We have seen that henceforth, daily life is the scene we need to observe. In our daily lives, mercantile consumption is of central importance. The economic transformations that have occurred in industrialized countries since the end of the Second World War went in the direction of an industrialization of consumption on the example of the work rationalization process that unfolded through the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. I use the expression 'industrialization' not so much in the sense of the advent of mass consumption as a way to compare systematization and rationalization of daily techniques to similar processes that happened in the field of work and production during the previous period. It is also during the postwar period that the semantic shift from 'housewife' to 'consumer', a less feminine expression (so valorized), has occurred, thus confirming the new importance the consumer actor was to acquire in the economic universe.

The criticism of consumption signifies its definitive and invisible inclusion in our social world

As is often the case in the context of modernity, the surge of criticism signals the end of a process and its ingestion in the 'normal change' (it is, by the way, a classic mode of operation of knowledge in social sciences, to pay attention to endangered objects). Baudrillard's essay on the 'consumption society' (1970) has not meant the death of the social form he was trying to dismantle; quite the contrary. The analyses of this essay, which remains astonishingly pertinent, have proven true and have come to be, including, incidentally, in the intellectual journey of the author himself. His critique of the effects of consumption on individual liberty and on social ties has become commonplace — without having had the least inclination to leave this type of society. On the contrary, through the apparent 'virtualization' of commercial exchanges, never has the world of material objects, sold or bought, been so prevalent (and, we might add, urgent) in our environment.

From the historical criticism of consumption . . .

The history of consumption criticism, even though it has not always meant mercantile consumption, is much longer. It starts in Antiquity with the Stoics, and goes on through the Christian vision of Stoic philosophers (and the adoption of their condemnation of material satisfaction regardless of spiritual accomplishment). That history of consumption criticism continues up until the eighteenth century with the constant opposition, in our civilization, between material goods (evil) and spiritual ones (good). In this sense, critics of consumption who have flourished in the post-Second World War period, with Baudrillard as well as Marcuse, Packard, Illitch, Gorz, de Jouvenel and all the institutional movement which opposed, from the 1950s, GDP growth to a measurement of well-being, these critics, then, stem from a long historical inspiration. What is less obvious is the parallel history of consumption's rehabilitation that is linked to another side of the culture of protest, Pietism (Campbell, 1990), which contributes to an opposite cultural movement which allows goodwill and tolerance in the face of 'human weaknesses'. This door, slightly open to satisfaction obtained through earthly goods, is reinforced, in the nineteenth century, by the opposition of romanticism to bourgeois accumulation (and the injunction for immediate pleasure in order to resist it), that will accompany the establishment of consumption and of pleasure through comfort. These will become the norm (almost universal) in the culture of the twentieth century. Of course, this process is not limited to the history of ideas: running parallel to the cultural rehabilitation of consumption as opponent to bourgeois accumulation (and Christian condemnation of instant pleasure), the second industrial revolution multiplies the proposed goods, urbanization gets well underway, the first superstores make their appearance and, in the new urban and solvent middle class, 'modern' comfort finds its defenders. Cooperative movements, such as Charles Gide's early twentieth-century Consumers League, try to make people realize this new importance of mass consumption, of which the first signs were already perceivable. It was only after the Second World War, however, that the surge of such consumption generated the most acerbic critics, at about the same time as the last cultural restraints of a religious or philosophical nature, those that had for centuries impeded the spread of material wealth and comfort, were weakening.

... to the triumph of mass consumption

Criticism of the society of consumption has not only become common ground, it has also accommodated the society of 'mass' consumption quite readily. Strengthened by the debate around it, it has never flourished in so much general indifference. It must be stressed again that the volume of consumption grows constantly in developed countries, even if those countries consider with dread that emerging countries aspire in turn to adopt the same model of abundance of which the ecological repercussions are increasingly recognized, if not greatly feared. Despite the impressions of dematerialization that are inspired by the ever-diminishing size of our miniaturized technical objects, material consumption is nowadays more massive than ever; this being the case through its own individualization. It is now technically possible to produce as job lot, that is, in limited editions, in a sufficiently flexible way so as to anticipate the latest trends in fashion (according to the 'zero stock' procedure that causes, as does home consumption, a maximum amount of trucks on the roads) and to give to each consumer the impression that the product he 'chooses' is intended expressly for him or her, all the while producing these individualization effects for millions, even billions of consumers.3 Thus it is not the 'mass consumption society' that has gone west, but the way in which consumption is adapted for the masses so that with the support of technical means, it has become possible to live in a society of mass consumption where each individual, as a perfectly atomized consumer, thinks him or herself different from others and in a position to 'choose'. It is not hard to demonstrate that this consumer, subjectively endowed with 'freedom of choice', is structurally just as much in a position of constrained choice as he or she is similar to millions or billions of others who share this condition. The nature of this constraint, however, is in no way comparable to those constraints which were an integral part of the daily life of most people from previous societies. Let us simply say that individuals are unaware of the effects and massive nature of their choices, even though they are encouraged to worry about the risks to the environment and to human health that result from their own way of life. It is often at this point that consumers become aware of the binding nature of the institutional system that defines both the ways of life and the possibilities of change.

Is the atomized consumer thus deprived of his or her capacities for action?

There is an obvious gap between what individuals think of their own consumer condition and freedom of choice, and the generalization of the objective constraint (including the cultural, but also and more importantly the material constraints) in today's consumption society. Despite this difference, I will follow De Certeau's very plausible hypothesis, according to which consumers are not the helpless and complacent beings that the critics of the consumption society try to depict in their disenchanted way. It essentially consists in looking at the 'consumption's production', at the product of consumption in terms of uses. As consumers, and not as atomized individuals, we, each and none of us, display 'operating logics' often very ancient, some 'art of doing' and practical 'tricks' that allow us to preserve the impression that we have a minimum amount of control over our daily actions while being aware of the strong degree of constraint in the systemic universe in which we evolve. Furthermore, consumption practices happen to be a perfect setting for this daily exercise of control and self-limitation. Far from considering themselves as devoid of room for maneuver, consumers display many tricks drawn from practical wisdom and use them in order to counterbalance the integrating power of the mercantile consumption system. The style, as De Certeau says, is that of:

moral resistance, that is an economy of the 'gift' (generosities for which one expects a return), an esthetics of 'tricks' (artist's operations) and an ethics of 'tenacity' (countless ways of refusing to accord the established order the status of a law, a meaning or a fatality).

In order to presuppose ordinary resistance in daily practices of self-limitation, we must accept the fact that the actor possesses, at least in part, some control over the sense of his actions. We must also invoke daily creativity that is no less than the permanent negotiation between the acquired and the new, imposed by habitus, for instance. If habitus equips the individual with a set of conducts inherited (for the reproduction) and to be invented in new situations (for the sudden appearance of what's new) that is in close connection with the group of origin, we would therefore have to ask the question of which habitus will be more favorable to the game with the daily constraints. One could bet that it will not be those of the privileged classes first, but rather that of the popular and average classes. However, if wealth dispenses privileges, that of reducing, up to the point of making it disappear, the daily aspects of life (the routine, repetitive and laborious aspects of living) are not the least. And that is what feeds the public dream of tabloids.

In spite of his lack of interest in daily life, the sociologist who most approached a conception of ordinary resistance in the emancipatory project of his sociology is Pierre Bourdieu. In a critical surge towards the defendants of popular culture (which replaced the tradition of research on the working culture in France), Bourdieu, however, explicitly mistrusts the temptation of researchers to see capacities of action where the structure imposes its powerful laws:

Thus, the freedom of play that the agents have ensured (and that the theories known as 'of resistance' hurry to celebrate), in a preoccupation for rehabilitation, like evidence of inventiveness, can be the condition of their contribution to their own exploitation.

(Bourdieu, 1997: 244)

In this context it is all the more surprising that Bourdieu, a sociologist at his best when it comes to revealing the truth about the various statuses, a practical theorist, saw himself invested with a mission of individual and intellectual resistance to the logic of domination, without recognizing in ordinary people even the least capacity, theoretical or practical, of going against this logic. Bourdieu has explained this many times in his Pascalian Meditations (1997) on this dichotomy, which he calls academic and which opposes reproduction to resistance without managing to rid himself of it (the title, in English, of his collection of essays Contre-feux 1 is, after all, Acts of Resistance). On the contrary, by holding the noble role of resistance to the drastic conditions of the access to undeniable objectivity that a pulpit with the College of France begets, he uses a double tradition related to resistance, which precisely represents an obstacle to the theorization of ordinary resistance:

• The resistant is an individual, a hero. An old tradition, which dates back to Socrates and to Stoical clerks, takes part in the cultural process of individualization and heroism of resistance (with the image of Antigone, of Gandhi, but also, in its own way, of the Stoical philosopher, rich but as frugal as Sénèque, for example). In the literary and political fields, this tradition proposes to us figures of resistants (up until De Gaulle), exceptional individuals who incarnate to some extent a collective power, redeem it, represent it, and also, in a certain manner, replace it. Thus the handful of resistants in France has redeemed, symbolically, the collective ideological rout of fascism. Closer to our time, a figure such as José Bové, made a hero of his time, by the media, who makes it possible to redeem massive practices of industrial agriculture that are infamous destroyers of the environment and human health. More interesting still, one can suppose that the alterglobalist movement will be able to carry some weight in the international political sphere when it obtains (or will have been given by the media) a figure of resistant, individual and hero, as it should be.

• The resistant is {inevitably) an intellectual (this proposal is reversible). This more recent tradition depends on the first and has been reinforced in the nineteenth century, with the figure of the writer and the independent artist opposed to middle-class interests and consequently above party politics. In regard to Bourdieu, one will find his conception of his own role of intellectual resistant in the book on Flaubert (1992), where a thousand alarm bells are rung about the loss of independence of the intellectuals in the current context of subordination of artistic values to commercial values (which amounts to selling off the historical heritage of the empowerment of nineteenth-century intellectuals, represented in the figures of Flaubert, Baudelaire, Zola, and so on). Within the ranks of the Revolutionaries also, the intellectual as an individual has found his place (the legend of Lenin getting into an armored train, for example: would the Russian Revolution have taken place if it had not been there?). In spite of the difficulties inherent to revolutionary theories, to start with Marx's, to grant a dynamic place to individuality, the figure of the revolutionary remains individual and Christ-oriented (Che Guevara, Sub-commander Marcos who, moreover, was originally a sociologist). It is because he does not enter the round of material interests, because he does not pursue power and material glories, that the intellectual is credited (and credits himself) with this critical and resistant capacity, that, in our day, ordinary people cannot afford. Bourdieu also subscribes to this tradition by speaking, almost on the mode of the idealization of the practical reason, of the one which, when taken into action, minding his own business, has neither the leisure nor the capacity to take a step back and analyze his own situation; far less extract himself from this situation permanently. Do we need to explain that this design of total absorption in the manual duty of the simple man is a pure intellectual phantasm? That very often, nobody better than those who are stuck with the material tasks, have better knowledge of the ins and outs, as many peasants commenting on the world market and perched on their tractor, have proven.

Resisting sweetness

All these thoughts put us on slippery ground in sociology: that of the 'consciousness', or worse, of the 'awakening', the sudden awareness. It has been mined for a long time, after the relevant criticism of the 'Subject'. Fine, if what one is likely to be opposed to is clearly perceived as harmful; one opposes it, justly one revolts, one calls upon the instruments of organized politics. But in the case of ordinary resistance in the field of consumption, another question arises: How to resist that which does us good? That which wants our own good? Because the improvement of material well-being is far from regarded as a scourge by the majority of the inhabitants of developed countries, even if we can clearly perceive what we have lost because of material progress (Boy, 1999). To speak of ordinary resistance in this context thus supposes that one runs culturally against these two relatively strong traditions.

The cultural device for heroism of individual resistance hides the nature of ordinary resistance, which is social

Works by historians about the Resistance during the Second World War, such as those of Semelin (1989), also went in this direction. Having explored in all their aspects the various resistant organizations and their actions, historians ended up being interested in the social conditions of the possibility of these actions. Here they were faced with the 'obscure' forgotten: women, village solidarities, the invisible cultural infrastructure that made possible the organized resistant action. In the same way, it is highly probable that the individual and heroic figure of the resistant has become hypostatic, metaphorically but also in a comradeship-like manner, a truly collective and social resource — without being able to be perceived as such by other individuals. There is a lack of knowledge here, but its mechanism is more complex than the work of the structure. It is historical individualism (and then ideological) that feeds this misconception of the social, and not individual, character of ordinary resistance as a resource of daily action.

The intellectual does not have the monopoly of resistance

Ordinary resistance, if it must take form in the 'relegated' space of daily life, is translated in the logic of practice by reflexive acts, consciously directed by the concern of withdrawing itself from mercantile logic (one could however stretch this reasoning to the influence of bureaucratic, technological or urban systems, and so on).

The practices of ordinary resistance are not, therefore, to be regarded as rational in the sense of a calculation. They are induced by requirements of two orders, both contradictory with the mercantile logic. The first requirement is inherently social (sui generis). It comes from the need for perpetuation, by itself, of the societal, and not through exogenous logics, whether we speak of technical organization (Lianos, 2002) or of the logic of commercial exchange. Maintaining an inherently social logic in human relations requires a distancing (which is also a diversion) from technical or mercantile logics, which tend to constantly replace the specifically social definition of human relations in the context of today's modernity. The second requirement is of a cultural nature. It comes from the autonomy project of the modern individual, a project that requires a minimum amount of control over one's own life or at least of one's biographical trajectory. Among the alternative projects of development that date back to the end of the 1960s, in line with the critique of the mass consumption society, the ecologists (in a very large sense) proposed a political project that could have allowed the 'atomized consumers' to become aware of their capacity for collective action in daily life, and to transform insulated acts, gone through individually, of mercantile logic refusal, into political change. However, this did not work — which raises another important question whose answer is not easy to find: What if ordinary resistance, which is a refusal of the acceptance of the general framework, which is trick, craft, diversion and a daily way to deal with things as they are, was not necessarily an engine of action in the political sphere, but rather the opposite?

I propose to shelve this question, knowing that the provisional answer is ambivalent, like the concept of ordinary resistance itself. In other words: ordinary resistance can constitute the breeding ground where a political project of much vaster change would be fed; but it can also conservatively allow things to continue without too many difficulties — precisely so long as these practices can give the impression of avoiding, as an individual, that to which all succumb collectively, namely with the logic of the great industrial and mercantile systems. It is also difficult to indicate the conditions in which the graft of a political project that would gather those individual acts (of collective nature) could hold. Would this be the advent of cumulative alimentary catastrophes, or something else? Would it be a clarification of the alternative political programs or the 'maturing' of opinion? I do not know. I, in any case, refuse to speak of an awakening, in the sense that consciousness is already there, and that the concept of ordinary resistance can perfectly continue without 'the subject'. The theory of ordinary resistance is not an agency theory, but a theory that seeks rather to seize the resources of daily life in the sense of Giddens (1984) ('gray zones' where the actor and the system meet). It is not necessary, in this perspective, to oppose practical reason to theoretical reason. The daily practice such as I understand it, in ordinary resistance, mobilizes knowledge just as well as action. Only, it is a question of interstitial knowledge and actions which do not take place on the ritualized scene of confrontations in public space. Again, to use an expression from De Certeau, ordinary resistance concerns those who, because they don't have their own place, must occupy (in thought and action) the place of others.

It is the societal, not the individual, that resists

We can speak of resistance because, in the case of consumption, that which we would like to avoid does not present itself to us straightforwardly, like a threat to be rejected, but on the contrary, like a good, an improvement and a progress. The extension of the institutional canvas (in which all the commercial acts narrowly overlap) takes place in each one of us in the name of 'more and better': more options, more effectiveness, more objects, greater comfort, better service and so on. The question of refusal that the concept of resistance implies thus cannot be asked in terms of the true and organized opposition, nor even in terms of civil disobedience (Thoreau in Bode, 1977), or of revolt, of the collective action in the traditional sense of the mobilizations. Or, to state it differently: comfort and material benefits of consumption appear to each other as necessary (even mandatory) and desirable, but not their ecological and human consequences.

It is the disproportion of the forces between daily action and systemic action and its representatives (the market) that invites us to explore ordinary resistance rather than the other forms of social action. There is not, and there cannot be, a confrontation of equal forces between the daily world and the economic, technological and technocratic unit that governs it (abstractedly indicated by the 'system'). The disproportion of the forces involved calls for tricks, for the metis (Détienne and Vernant, 1974), or other forms of action not yet identified. In this sense, ordinary resistance is indeed the fact of the dominated that recognize themselves as such. Women often practised this kind of slyness to bypass the obstacle of male domination. The division of forms and places of power, which Foucault calls 'biopower', Deleuze 'the holding company' and Lianos the 'new social control', must correspond to the new forms of confrontation in daily life. Foucault (1982) spoke about resistances, in plural, in one of his last writings. The 'new social control' of Lianos starts from the point that social forms of control, previously 'social', are precisely being replaced by technical devices that pre-configure our acts without us thinking of reacting (for example, if we observe our series of actions in a supermarket or on the subway, we realize that we cannot reconsider our steps in just any way, or come and go as we please, that the circulation and communication lanes in their broadest sense are pre-configured by the reticular technical device, which finishes that way by having a moral value — in the sense that morals dictate the ordinary codes of conduct).

The immediate consequence of these analyses for daily sociology is the report of a double epistemological and theoretical difficulty to apprehend the phenomena, to build the facts that best illustrate our approach. As soon as the concept of ordinary resistance is evoked, it awakes many associations drawn from the experiences of each one of us. I have noticed this quite often. The particular difficulty of the field and of the most conclusive facts is thus rather the result of the abundance of examples that one could give than of their scarcity. But systematic observation of facts of ordinary resistance in the field of consumption, whether frugality, alternative consumption or refusal to consume, is far from being able to be supported by institutional devices of data production, as is the case for consumption in the mercantile sense. In addition, the qualitative approaches are each time local and their value of generalization is lesser.

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