Spectacle (Society of the Spectacle)

A critical, creative and reflexive practice of narrative environment design could benefit from an understanding of the issues raised by Guy Debord in his book, Society of the Spectacle, published in 1967. It is a manifesto of 221 theses on capitalist culture in France in the two decades since the end of World War Two (WW2) in 1945 until the mid-1960s.

Developed from Marx’s theories of reification and alienation, Debord defines the spectacle as a passive, individualistic, quasi-visual relation to the social world. The individual, divorced from the collective praxis that constructs the social world, is reduced to consuming corporate-supplied entrancing narratives.

Kaplan (2012) suggests that this critique, while valuable in offering a salient, potentially illuminating, description of people’s increasingly commodity-saturated, mass-mediated, image-dominated and corporate-constructed world, with all its conspicuous irrationalities, is nonetheless flawed. Its most serious defect, Kaplan argues, is Debord’s rejection of the necessary intermediation of social life by culture and communication. His analysis assumes a notion of mass society, in which people are culturally denuded, divorced from community and thereby subject to the imposition of false needs.

Against the profound alienation of post-WW2 capitalism, Debord opposes the utopian vision of a communist society of transparent, direct human action and community. One must choose either revolutionary socialism or prolong continued acquiesce to barbarism, Debord argues. Both the alienated masses and the revolutionary collective, however, Kaplan suggests, depend implicitly on the framework of liberal individualism, which abstracts individuals from the cultural traditions and social relations in which they are embedded.


Kaplan, R.L. (2012). Between mass society and revolutionary praxis: the contradictions of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 15 (4), 457–478. Available from http://ecs.sagepub.com/cgi/doi/10.1177/1367549412442208 [Accessed 10 August 2012].

edited 7 May, 2016 by Allan Parsons

Associated Practices

Use for Distancing effect; estrangement effect

Mode of address and mode of engagement of audience and/or participant is an important aspect of the threshold and immersive experience of the narrative environment, both in terms of narrative beginning and sequential progression and environmental entrance and situational flow: what is the character of the performative invitation to engage with, and persist with, the narrative environment? The question that arises, then, is whether this constitutes an empathic engagement or some mixture of empathic and intellectual engagement, which may prompt consideration of the value of the alienation effect discussed by Brecht and the defamiliarisation process discussed by Shklovsky as devices for guiding responses and interactions.

Alienation effect is a term derived from the theoretical and theatrical practice of the German Marxist playwright and poet, Bertolt Brecht, 1898-1956. Brecht sought to discover ways of dramatising Marx’s insights into the ways capitalism works. To this end, he sought to create a ‘dialectical theatre’ by means of a set of devices in staging, music, acting, and the telling of parable. The goals was to confound an audience’s comfortable empathic identification with characters and story, as is encouraged by conventional realism [1] or naturalism (Brooker, 2003: 5), through the illusion of the real, the natural and/or the inevitable, i,e, as ‘matters-of-fact’ in contrast to ‘matters of concern’, in Latour’s terms.

Brecht introduces the term Verfremdungseffekt, translated as ‘alienation effect’ [2], in an article entitled “On Chinese Acting” [3], arguing that the term had been used in Germany with reference to plays that were of a non-Aristotelian kind, by which he means plays that did not rely on an identification on the audience’s part with the characters on the stage. In Brecht’s (1961: 130) words, the alienation effect refers to,

“… attempts to act in such a manner that the spectator is prevented from feeling his way into the characters. Acceptance or rejection of the characters’ words is thus placed in the conscious realm, not, as hitherto, in the spectator’s subconscious.”

Together these techniques produced the ‘alienation effect’.

As Selden, Widdowson and Brooker (2005: 89) explain, Brecht rejected what he called Aristotelian theatre, referring to Aristotle’s formalisation of the practices of Greek tragedy, a form of drama performed in theatres across ancient Greece from the late 6th century BCE whose main proponents were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (Cartwright, 2013). Aristotle emphasised the universality and unity of the tragic action, and the identification of audience and hero in an empathic relation which produces a catharsis of emotions. In contrast, Brecht urges that the dramatist avoid a smoothly interconnected plot and prevent any sense of inevitability or universality. The facts of social injustice, Brecht contended, needed to be presented as if they were shockingly unnatural and totally surprising.

To avoid lulling the audience into a state of passive acceptance, the illusion of reality, achieved through the audience’s empathic identification with the tragic hero figure, must be shattered by the use of the alienation effect. The actors must not lose themselves in their roles or seek to promote a purely empathic audience identification. They must present a role to the audience as both recognizable and unfamiliar (recalling Freud’s notion of the uncanny), so that a process of critical assessment can be initiated. The situation, emotions and dilemmas of the characters must be understood from the outside and presented as strange and problematic. This is not to say that actors should avoid the use of emotion, simply that they should not resort to empathy. This is achieved by ‘baring the device’, to use the Formalist term (Selden, Widdowson and Brooker, 2005: 90).

Brecht did not seek, through this effect, to reinforce alienation in Marx’s sense. Marx depicts a condition of human alienation from nature, from other people and from the products of his/her own labour. The latter, in particular, is induced by the exploitation of the worker under capitalism, enforcing an identification of the worker with the commodity value of the products of labour. Ultimately, this is seen by Marx to produce a profound alienation of humans from themselves.

Brecht’s intentions were precisely the opposite: to induce a ‘critical attitude’ which would dispel the acceptance necessary to the maintenance of the conditions producing alienation under capitalism. Brecht intended to describe a technique of distancing the audience from intense empathic involvement in the action of a play, in order to encourage and enable them to reflect objectively on the content, themes and messages inherent in that action.

This difference can be seen in the term Brecht used in German. Marx used the word Entfremdung while Brecht wrote of the Verfremdungseffekt, for which a better translation would be ‘de-alienation’ effect. As such, it is related to similar devices in modernist theory and art such as ‘defamiliarization’ or ostranenie and ‘making strange’ or ‘estrangement’, though these have not always had the overtly politicizing intention of Brecht’s method.

Brecht’s ideas were widely adopted, often in association with feminism, psychoanalysis and the Marxism of Louis Althusser, in the film theory of the 1970s associated with the British film journal Screen.

Brecht’s concept is to a degree indebted to the theories of montage developed in Soviet cinema theory and practice of the 1920s, notably in the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein. Later examples in the ‘Brechtian’ tradition in theatre are Heiner Müller, John Arden, Edward Bond, Dario Fo; and in cinema, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Marie Straub, and Hal Hartley and Peter Greenaway, the latter two more indirectly.

The alienation effect is now pervasive. It can be found in advertising and television programming as well as cinema and theatre. Consequently such devices are no longer the province of a critical avant-garde. Scepticism about its continued value is related to arguments about a loss of distinction between the image and the real in postmodern society and the frustrations therefore attending any form of artistic or theoretical ideology critique.


[1] In particular, Brecht opposed Socialist Realism. This offended the East German authorities after he settled there in 1949. Socialist Realism favoured realistic illusion, formal unity and ‘positive’ heroes. He called his theory of realism ‘anti-Aristotelian’, a covert way of attacking the theory of his opponents (Selden, Widdowson and Brooker, 2005: 89)

[2] Henri Lefebvre discusses the adequacy of this translation and also the risks and dangers inherent in Brecht’s dialectical theatre in a passage in the Introduction to volume 1 of Critique of Everyday Life. Thus, Lefebvre (1995: 23) argues that in Brecht’s theatre,

“The spectator wavers between an externalized judgement – an intellectual state which implies high culture – and an immersion in the image proposed. Perhaps this is what the dialectic of the Verfremdungseffekt is. The spectator is meant to disalienate himself in and through the consciousness of alienation. He is meant to feel wrenched from his self but only in order to enter more effectively into his self and become conscious of the real and the contradictions of the real.”

However, Lefebvre (1995: 24) continues, there is a risk that this dialectic process will fail and take on the disturbing form of fascination, which is a worse outcome than the identification that takes place in the Aristotelian model of tragic theatre: rather than ‘classic’, tragic completeness, the audience will look for satisfaction in “ a sort of bloody ecstasy” (Lefebvre, 1995: 24). Furthermore, Lefebvre (1995: 24) notes, “generalized strangeness entails a danger”, one that was avoided by Brecht but is not necessarily avoided by the people who produce his plays or write about them.

The danger is that in seeking to construct a drama that, while based on alienation, seeks to struggle against it, the drama will end up sanctioning alienation. It is significant, in this respect, that Brecht’s term Verfremdungseffekt is translated as ‘effet d’alienation’ in French and as ‘alienation effect’ in English, as if alienation were the goal of the effect rather than that which it seeks to overcome.

Lefebvre (1995: 24) concludes that it would be a cruel paradox if Brecht’s drama were “to sanction alienation by giving it all the glamour of violence”, a danger, Lefebvre thinks, that is more evident in Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty that Brecht’s epic or dialectical theatre.

[3] Min Tian (1997) warns that Chinese acting does not in fact generate anything identical with, or even similar to, the Brechtian Alienation effect, and that the influence of Asian theatre on Brecht should not be overemphasised. Long before he saw Mei Lan-fang’s performance in 1935, Brecht had formulated in his theoretical writings and theatrical practices his new conceptions of theatre and acting, in particuliar his theory of the epic style of acting. What later came to be called the Alienation effect was already firmly established and clearly articulated as the core of his epic theatre, as outlined, for example, in “The Street Scene” (Brecht, 1978a). While he later elaborated the theory in greater detail, none of the basic ideas were changed (Hecht 1961, 95-96). John Willett, furthermore, contends that Brecht’s term Verfremdung, which was virtually a neologism, appears to be a precise translation of Viktor Shklovsky’s term “priem ostranenniya”, i.e. the device of making strange (Brecht 1978b, 99).

Rather than deriving from elements of Chinese theatre, Tian argues that, to a large extent, Brechtian theatre represents a return to the mainstream of the European classical tradition. A similar point is made by Jacques Derrida (1978, 244) who, while citing Antonin Artaud’s discussion of the theatre of cruelty, noted that,

“The Verfremdungseffekt [alienation effect] remains the prisoner of a classical paradox and of “the European ideal of art” which “attempts to cast the mind into an attitude distinct from force but addicted to exaltation” (TD, p. 10). Since “in the ‘theater of cruelty’ the spectator is in the center and the spectacle surrounds him” (TD, p. 81), the distance of vision is no longer pure, cannot be abstracted from the totality of the sensory milieu; the infused spectator can no longer constitute his spectacle and provide himself with its object. There is no longer spectator or spectacle, but festival (cf. TD, p. 85).”


Brecht, B. (1961). On Chinese acting. Tulane Drama Review, 6 (1), 130–136.

Brecht, B. (1978a). The Street scene: a basic model for an epic theatre. In: Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, edited by John Willett. London, UK: Methuen Drama, 121–129.

Brecht, B. (1978b). Brecht on theatre, edited by John Willett. London, UK: Methuen Drama.

Brooker, P. (2003). A Glossary of Cultural Theory, 2nd ed. London, UK: Arnold.

Derrida, J. (1978). The Theater of cruelty and the closure of represenation. In: Writing and difference. London: Routledge, 232-250.

Hecht, W. (1961). The Development of Brecht’s theory of the epic theatre, 1918-1933. Tulane Drama Review, 6 (1), 40–97. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1125006 [Accessed 22 March 2016].

Lefebvre, H. (1995). Critique of everyday life. Volume 1: Introduction. London, UK: Verso.

Selden, R., Widdowson, P. and Brooker, P. (2005). A Reader’s guide to contemporary literary theory, 5th ed. Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman.

Tian, M. (1997). ‘Alienation-effect’ for whom? Brecht’s (mis)interpretation of the classical Chinese theatre. Asian Theatre Journal, 14 (2), 200–222. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1124277 [Accessed 11 March 2016].

edited 11 July, 2016 by Allan Parsons

Since narrative environments are concerned with the relationship(s) between narrative phenomena in various media and embodied, enacted phenomena in various material environments or -spheres, the work of the European avant-garde movements, with their concern for the relationships among art practices, aesthetic practices and political practices is of great interest and relevance, from technical, methodological and purposive perspectives. Avant-garde practices can be linked to the discussion of ontological metalepsis.

The figurative use of the word avant-garde to denote radically progressive leaders of both art and society can be traced to the French utopian socialist Henri de Saint-Simon, I760-I825, Donald Egbert (1967: 340) states.

Saint-Simon’s conception of artists’ dual role leads to a persistent dilemma for radically avant-garde artists. As members of an elite social avant-garde, they may be expected to make art that directly promotes radical social ideas, in accordance with the later doctrines of Saint-Simon, and still later those of Marxists and Marxist-Leninists. Such art, this doctrine maintains, should be socially realistic, so as to be more readily understood by the masses, and thus be socially useful for propaganda, as Lenin, Stalin, and their official successors in the Soviet Union maintained. However, as members of a purely artistic avant-garde elite, should they divorce themselves, as well as their art, entirely from all social interests, as the more extreme upholders of art for art’s sake have insisted? Alternatively, should they, like Oscar Wilde, be socially concerned in some way, but keep their art and their social ideas essentially separate? (Egbert, 1967: 346)

Ales Erjavec (2015) argues that part of twentieth-century art can be designated specifically as an ‘aesthetic’ avant-garde. The term ‘aesthetic’ itself is of very specific provenance. It derives from Friedrich Schiller’s use of the term. For Schiller, the aesthetic conjoins art, the individual and the community, bringing together the art of the beautiful and the art of living.

Schiller, Ales explains, taking a lead from Ranciere (2004), was the first thinker to connect explicitly the domains of aesthetics and politics, arguing that the problem of politics in practice cannot be approached other than through the problem of the aesthetic because “it is only through Beauty that man makes his way to Freedom”.

Ranciere (2004), discussing what he calls the ‘aesthetic regime of art.’, locates the seeds of modern aesthetic education in the writings of the German Romantic, Friedrich Schiller. Rancière considers that, by suspending the opposition between active understanding and passive sensibility, Schiller’s aesthetic state seeks to break down an idea of society based on the opposition between those who think and decide and those who are doomed to material tasks. This breakdown is achieved using an idea of art. Rancière thereby offers a historical and philosophical account of the link between modern aesthetics and a democratic principle. (Frimer, 2011)

Erjavec, thus, classifies twentieth-century avant-gardes in two ways. First, he divides them into generations: the early twentieth century from 1905-1930; the later neo-avant-gardes emerging in the USA and Europe in the wake of the Second World War; and the postsocialist avant-gardes of Eastern Europe and other post-Soviet-era former-communist countries . Second, he considers that within each generation there is a spectrum running from artistic avant-garde’s at one end to aesthetic avant-garde’s at the other end. Artistic avant-garde’s introduce into art new styles and techniques, such as those to be found in Cubism and Surrealism. Through such styles and techniques, new representations of the lived world emerge.

At the other end of the spectrum, aesthetic avant-garde’s seek to reach beyond art into ‘life’, and aim to transform not just artistic styles and techniques but also the world. The artistic elements of such works are set within an experience-transforming orientation.

Aesthetic avant-gardes seek to affect our ways of experiencing and sensing the world, to change in significant ways the modalities in which we perceive and experience reality. In the words of Jacques Ranciere, they aim at a “redistribution of the sensible”, bringing attention to the ways in which systems of classification assign parts, supply meanings and define relationships among entities in the (common) world.

‘Postsocialist avant-garde’ is the name given by Erjavec to movements from present or former socialist countries whose art had features common to other avant-garde art of the twentieth century.

Erjavec looks forward to the possibility of a fourth generation ‘aesthetic’ avant-garde.


Egbert, D.D. (1967). The Idea of ‘Avant-garde’ in art and politics. American Historical Review, 73 (2), 339–366. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1866164 [Accessed 6 June 2016].

Erjavec, A. (2015). Introduction. In: Erjavec, A., ed. Aesthetic revolutions and twentieth-century avant-garde movements. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1–18.

Frimer, D. (2011). Pedagogical paradigms: Documenta’s reinvention. Art & Education. Available from http://www.artandeducation.net/paper/pedagogical-paradigms-documentas-reinvention/ [Accessed 16 December 2015].

Ranciere, J. (2004). The Politics of aesthetics: the distribution of the sensible. London, UK: Continuum.

edited 19 June, 2016 by Allan Parsons

The design of narrative environments requires critical thinking (and creative thinking) , but does it need critical theory, in the more narrow sense?

Bohman explains that critical theory in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. In traditional approaches, Max Horkheimer argues, the general goal of all theory is a universal systematic science, not limited to any particular subject matter but embracing all possible objects. However, for Horkheimer, a ‘critical’ theory may be distinguished from a ‘traditional’ theory on the basis of a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation, acts as a liberating influence, and serves to create a world in which human needs and powers are satisfied (Horkheimer, 2002).

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 13.56.43


As Horkheimer defines it, critical theory never aims simply at an increase of knowledge as such. Rather, critical theory is adequate only if it meets three criteria: it must be explanatory, practical, and normative, at once (Bohman, 2005). Thus, it must explain what is considered to be problematic with current social reality and in what ways it is a problem; identify the actors to address it and change it; and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation.

For Horkheimer, a capitalist society could be transformed only by becoming more democratic, such that the conditions of social life that are controllable by human beings depend on real consensus in a rational society. The normative orientation of critical theory, as critical social inquiry, is towards the transformation of capitalism into a real democracy in which such control could be exercised. In such formulations, there are striking similarities between critical theory and American pragmatism.

Critical theories are forms of knowledge which, as Raymond Guess writes in The Idea of Critical Theory ,differ from theories in the natural sciences because they are ‘reflective’ rather than ‘objectifying’, that is to say, they take into account their own procedures and methods. Critical theories aim neither to prove a hypothesis nor prescribe a particular methodology or solution to a problem. Rather, in differing ways, critical theorists offer self-reflective modes of thought that seek to change the world, or at least the world in which the inequalities of market capitalism, as well as patriarchal and colonial, or post-colonial, interests, still prevail.

Thus, the term ‘critical theory’ can be extended, as Jane Rendell suggests, to include the work of later theorists, such as those included under the labels of poststructuralism, postcolonialism, feminism and others, whose thinking is also self-critical and seeks to effect social change. This kind of theoretical work provides the opportunity not only to reflect on existing conditions, but also to imagine something different, to transform rather than simply describe them. More importantly, Rendell argues, it is possible to extend the ‘critical’ as defined through critical theory into practice, to include critical practices, i.e. those practices that involve social critique, self-reflection and social change.


Bohman, J. (2005). Critical theory. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory/ [Accessed 24 February 2016].

Horkheimer, M. (2002). Traditional and critical theory. In: Critical Theory: Selected Essays. New York, NY: Continuum, 188-252.

Rendell, J. (2007). Critical spatial practice. Jane Rendell [Website]. Available from http://www.janerendell.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/critical-spatial-practice.pdf [Accessed 12 March 2016].

Edited by Allan Parsons on 16 March 2016

edited 27 July, 2016 by Admin

While the crude teleological determinism, historicism and reductive economism of official communist ideology, or orthodox Marxism-Leninism, has come to occupy the space of Marxist thinking, narrative environment design may still benefit from considering a particular understanding of historical materialism, as inflected by the western Marxist tradition, with its recovery of subjectivity, agency and culture. How might this be possible?

Jason Edwards (2010: 282-284) proposes that there are two ways of approaching an understanding of historical materialism.

The first is as a positivist science based on a humanist philosophical anthropology, human nature as the subject of history, and a teleological conception of history embodying a form of economic or technological determinism, as the successive development of modes of production.

The second is as the complex totality (as assemblage, a non-totalising totality?) of the material practices that are required to reproduce the relations of production over time.

Material practices, in this context, are taken to be regular forms of behaviour that are norm-governed and which involve a person’s relation to their body and to other bodies, as well as to experiential phenomena.

This complex totality is instantiated in the everyday lives of people and, in turn, the material practices of everyday life are implicated in the political and economic power of the state and the international political economic system.

Edwards suggests that historical materialism, as conceived by Marx and Engels, needs to shed its humanism, historicism, economism and teleological determinism. This means that a more de-centred and relational conception of the subject is required, perhaps through such notions as the intercorporeal and the intersubjective conceived in materialist terms, as is a less teleological and deterministic conception of historical change and societal organisation, as is available, for example, through notions articulated by complexity theory.

Historical materialism, in this case, would focus on the character of everyday life and lived space, as discussed by Lefebvre, for example, including its penetration by various media and technologies of communication, as discussed by Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer, and particularly now internet-based, potentially participative, multimedia technologies, as well as its relationships to the ordering of cities, regions, states and the international political economy.

As such, historical materialism, as a way of understanding antagonistic struggles or dramatic conflicts, may be of value in thinking about the design of narrative environments.


Edwards, J. (2010). The materialism of historical materialism. In D. Coole and S. Frost, eds., New materialisms: ontology, agency, and politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp. 281–297.

edited 8 May, 2016 by Allan Parsons

There is no single approach or methodology for designing narrative environments although, whatever the approach, a narrative environment is taken to be a more or less complex whole or assemblage, although not necessarily a unified whole or totality, integrating different kinds of material reality, in short a narrative environment may be said to constitute a ‘world’, with its ontological assumptions about what exists and can exist in this ‘world’. While forming a ‘world’ as a form of sphere or envelope, a ‘world’ that is co-created by the designer, the design and the participants who enter the designed narrative environment, narrative environments remain open or porous to the other ‘worlds’ in relation to which they exist.

For example, developing an actantial approach, taking its orientation from the work of A.J. Greimas, Jacques Lacan and Bruno Latour, a narrative environment may be considered to be articulated from three main classes or kinds of actant, narrative actants, environmental actants and human actants, each of which act upon the others and become entangled to form a complex whole or field of actantiality.

Alternatively, in an approach which relies more heavily upon the terminology employed by Etienne Souriau, Christian Metz and Gerard Genette, this complex whole may be termed diégèse.

The design of narrative environments could be seen as part of a post-Humanist, non-instrumentalist, materialist approach to understanding and re-designing the ‘real’ or ‘actual’ world, in which human agency is not taken to be the centre of the world but is an emergent phenomenon within, for example, a sphere (Sloterdijk), a network (Latour) or a living system (Maturana and Varela). It therefore partakes in the ‘ontological turn’ in design, in particular a relational ontology, as discussed, for example, by Escobar (2013).


Escobar, A. (2013). Notes on the ontology of design [Draft paper]. Available from http://sawyerseminar.ucdavis.edu/files/2012/12/ESCOBAR_Notes-on-the-Ontology-of-Design-Parts-I-II-_-III.pdf [Accessed 4 September 2016].

edited 4 September, 2018 by Admin

Of particular interest to the design of narrative environments, in the context of the relations among art practices, aesthetic practices and everyday action, is the Situationist International and its forerunner, the Lettriste International.

Bonnet (1992: 76) considers that the most determined challenge to the categories of art and everyday space, and their potential interrelationships, has come from the Situationist International, founded in 1957, and its principal forerunner, the Lettriste International, founded 1952.

The Lettriste International was formed as a splinter group of the Lettristes, a surrealist movement formed in Paris in the late 1940s. Its interest lay in developing forms of poetry, painting, and music based on the alphabetical letter.

The members of the Lettriste International were dissatisfied with the conservatism and aesthetism of the Lettristes. Guy Debord was the intellectual leader of both the Lettriste International and the Situationist International. The other main theorist in the Situationist International was Raoul Vaneigem. The two key texts by these radical thinkers, both originally published in French in 1967 are:

Debord, G. (1983). Society of the spectacle. New York, NY: Zone Books.

Vaneigem, R. (2001). The revolution of everyday life. London, UK: Rebel Press.


Bonnett, A. (1989). Situationism, geography, and poststructuralism. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 7 (2), 131–146.

Bonnett, A. (1992). Art, ideology, and everyday space: subversive tendencies from Dada to postmodernism. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 10 (1), pp.69–86.


Situationist International Online

edited 8 February, 2017 by Allan Parsons

Associated Terms

See also Fetishism (Commodity fetishism); Reification; Historical materialism (Marxism)

(Note: this entry refers to the term used in sociology and psychology to describe mental states that are commonly experienced in modern society. For the term that had direct relevance to Narrative Environment practice, see Alienation-effect)

In general, alienation refers to the sense of distance from nature, separation from others, and helplessness that is an effect of modern existence since the time of the Industrial Revolution in the West (1750 onwards).

In Karl Marx’s writings, alienation is depicted as a condition of human alienation from nature; from other people; and of a person from the products of his/her own labour. The last form of alienation, from the products of one’s own labour, is induced by the exploitation of the worker under capitalism, Marx argues, enforcing an identification of the worker with the commodity value of the products of labour. Ultimately, this is seen by Marx to produce a profound alienation of humans from themselves.

In psychoanalytic theory, alienation refers to the split in subjectivity between the ego cogito and the unconscious, and the recognition that one is not in control of one’s thoughts, actions, and desires because of the existence of unconscious drives brought into play in interaction with one’s social and material environments.


Sturken M. and Cartwright, L. (2001). Practices of Looking: an introduction to visual culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

edited 1 March, 2017 by Admin


the everyday – le quotidien – Alltaglich

In some respects, narrative environment design could be considered to be a critical, creative and reflexive practice within and about everyday life, interested not just in the ordinary but also the extraordinary. However, at first, it might not seem that the everyday is fertile ground for narrative environment design, particularly if, for example, one begins from the proposition articulated by Maurice Blanchot (1987: 17) that,

“The everyday, where one lives as though outside the true and the false, is … without responsibility and without authority, without direction and without decision, a storehouse of anarchy, since casting aside all beginning and dismissing all end. This is the everyday.”

Yet if one is attentive to Blanchot’s qualification, that it is “as though” this is the case, then it can be seen that the issues with which narrative environment design is concerned are indeed present in the everyday: truth and falsehood or authenticity and inauthenticity; responsibility and authority; direction and decision-making; order and disorder; beginning and ending.

The everyday, everyday life or daily life, is the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the habitual (Perec, 2008), that which is taken for granted, that which all too familiar and therefore goes unnoticed and is overlooked. The everyday is that which slips into the background; or, as Maurice Blanchot (1987: 12) puts it in an essay section heading, “The Everyday: What is Most Difficult to Discover”.

Agnes Heller (1985), from a different perspective, suggests that the everyday might be understood as the most fundamental ontological category of society, albeit one that is not an unchanging essence but has to be continually re-constructed. For Heller, the everyday constitutes the shared life experience through which the world is intersubjectively constituted.

In terms of an actantial model of narrative environments, the everyday environs; that is its primary mode of actantiality: it becomes an unrecognised and unrecognisable part of the atmosphere, unless disrupted and brought (back) to attention.

For this reason, the everyday may be of great significance in thinking about the design of narrative environments because, similarly to the interventions of neo-avant-garde artists, a narrative environment can provide a way of “ensuring that the details of everyday life, the random constellations of objects that surround us, stop going unnoticed”, as George Brecht, conceptual artist and member of Fluxus, expressed it. Appropriating Zen and other forms of Mahayana Buddhism for their own ends, the work of neo-avant-garde artists and composers, such as the ‘anti-art’ of George Maciunas, a central figure in Fluxus, and the ‘situation art’ of Tom Marioni, rejected orthodox modernism in favour of the sheer immediacy and authenticity of everyday life.

Everyday life is a central, highly diverse and problematic theme for modern philosophy and social theory and, since the mid-1990s, has become persistent topic within art practice. The analysis of the everyday has been undertaken by such thinkers as Dilthey, Wittgenstein, Simmel, Husserl, Schutz, Heidegger, Dewey, Lefebvre, Kosik, Bakhtin, Benjamin, Bloch, Habermas, Garfinkel, Debord and de Certeau.

As Lefebvre (2014: 679) points out, this represents a radical change of focus for philosophy, because,

“In the past, philosophers excluded daily life from knowledge and wisdom. Essential and mundane, it was deemed unworthy of thought. Thought first of all established a distance (an epoche) vis-a-vis daily life, the domain and abode of non-philosophers.”

By changing its focus thus, Lefebvre suggests, philosophy is seeking to renew itself by overcoming speculative abstraction, an endeavour which has been ongoing since Marx, Husserl, Heidegger, Lukacs and others.

As Gardiner (2006: 207) highlights, the theorists mentioned above set out to problematise everyday life, to expose its manifold contradictions, effects and determinations, as well as its hidden potentialities. This problematisation is accomplished through various techniques of the alienation effect, estrangement or defamiliarisation whose aim is to unsettle the state of habitualised, perpetual distraction that, it is argued, constitutes the everyday life of modernity, thereby jolting it into a condition of active awareness or mindfulness.

Such approaches, therefore, differ from mainstream sociological studies, in which the everyday is the realm of the ordinary. In the alternative sketched out by Lefebvre and others, the everyday is treated  as incipiently extraordinary. As Gardiner (2006: 207) explains,

“The ordinary can become extraordinary not by eclipsing the everyday, or imagining we can arbitrarily leap beyond it to some ‘higher’ level of cognition, knowledge or action, but by fully appropriating and activating the possibilities that lie hidden, and typically repressed, within it. Such an enriched experience can then be re-directed back to daily life in order to transform it.”

In line with the Marxian dictum in the Theses on Feuerbach, the goal is to elevate lived experience to the status of a critical concept, not simply in order to describe it, but in order to change it (Kaplan and Ross, 1987: 1). The French understanding of the everyday, Schilling (2003: 24) comments, incorporates the avant-garde injunction to “change life” which runs through the left-wing politics of Lefebvre, the disruptive interventions of the Situationist International and the popular tactics of resistance articulated by De Certeau and which was adapted by the Surrealists from Rimbaud and Marx.

Everyday life undoubtedly does display routinised, static and unreflexive characteristics, as Schütz and other sociologists have noted. Nevertheless, the work of Lefebvre and others leads to the recognition that everyday life is also capable of surprising dynamism, penetrating insight and unbridled creativity. Everyday lives and knowledges thus demonstrate an irreducibly imaginative and dynamic quality. They cannot simply be written off as trivial, inconsequential and habit-bound (Gardiner, 2006: 207). In this sense, the French-derived thinking about the everyday differs from German-language reflections on Alltaglichkeit, such as in Lukacs’ Metaphysics of Tragedy and Heidegger’s Being and Time, which characterise the everyday as the domain of inauthenticity, tiriviality and error (Schilling, 2003: 24).

Michael Sheringham (2006: 3) emphasises the importance of French thought in the post-World War Two period (post-1945) in bringing the notion of the everyday, or the quotidien, to prominence. He argues that from the mid-1950s onwards a cluster of closely-related ways of thinking about and exploring the everyday developed which led to the notion of the everyday being positioned at the centre of French culture from the 1980s onwards, and into the 21st century. Since the 1980s, investigations and explorations of the everyday have become prominent in France certainly, but also elsewhere.

Prominent amongst those paying attention to the everyday in the French context are Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes, Michel de Certeau and Georges Perec, in dialogue with such thinkers as Edgar Morin, Jean-Luc Godard, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault and those included under the banner of Situationism. In turn, these writers draw common inspiration from ideas about the everyday at large in the writings of Karl Marx, Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris, Raymond Queneau and Walter Benjamin, as well as the Surrealists (Sheringham, 2006: 4).

Thus, the work of critical neo-Marxist writers, such as Guy Debord, Henri Lefebrvre, the early Jean Baudrillard and Edgar Morin, articulating a ‘critique of everyday-life’, formed a unique contribution to the construction of a sociology of the quotidian, which examined everyday life as a site of capitalist domination characterised by ‘alienation’, ‘reification’ and ‘commodity fetishism’, or what Debord called the ‘society of the spectacle’ (Evans, 1997:223).

For Marx, the everyday is the site of political struggle, towards which philosophy should direct its attention; and is also the object of critique in certain forms of literary studies, as noted by Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak (2002: 30):

“In Marx’s text philosophy must thus displace itself into the everyday struggle. In my argument, literature, insofar as it is in the service of the emergence of the critical, must also displace itself thus.”

In being conceptualised as a site of struggle, i.e. within an agonistic framework, the everyday can be understood narratively as a set of dramatic conflicts taking place in specific environments for specific kinds of actants and, therefore, thinking about the everyday is of interest in the design of narrative environments.

Brooker (2003: 96-97) suggests that references to everyday life can be taken to express an emphasis upon the forms and meanings of a common or popular culture. The assumption behind this position is that, as Raymond Williams argues, culture is ordinary, rather than the exclusive province of an elite. In turn, this underlies a broadly political perspective on cultural production and consumption, enabling the routine or banal in daily life to be recognised as a complex field of contested cultural meanings.

If, as Maurice Blanchot (1987: 13) suggests, the everyday constitutes, “a utopia, and an Idea, without which one would not know how to get at either the hidden present, or the discoverable future of manifest beings”, then the task of the narrative environment designer, as critical theorist of everyday life, becomes that of practising a utopian humanism.

Such a practice celebrates the intrinsic, although often invisible, promises and possibilities of ordinary human beings and the inherent value of common sense forms of making sense and knowing. It also recognises, nonetheless, the shortcomings of the mundane world as currently constituted. It is therefore attuned to the transgressive, sensual and incandescent qualities of everyday existence, whereby the whole fabric of daily life, in its sociality, materiality, spatiality and temporality, can take on a festive character, akin to that of a work of art (Gardiner, 2006: 207).

Good places to start researching how the study of everyday has developed are:

Cultural Studies, volume 18, issue 2/3, 2004, and

Yale French Studies, no. 73, 1987.

See also the entry for Situationist International

See also Painting the everyday in Europeana

Selected readings

Blanchot, M. (1987). Everyday speech. Yale French Studies, 73, 12–20.

Brooker, P. (2003). A Glossary of Cultural Theory, 2nd ed. London, UK: Arnold.

Evans, D. (1997). Michel Maffesoli’s sociology of modernity and postmodernity: an introduction and critical assessment. Sociological Review, 45 (2), 220–243. Available from http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/1467-954X.00062 [Accessed 7 May 2016].

Heller, A. (1985) The Power of Shame: A Rational Perspective. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Johnstone, S., ed. (2008). The Everyday. London: Whitechapel Gallery

Lefebvre, H. (1995). Critique of everyday life. Volume 1: Introduction. London, UK: Verso.

Lefebvre, H. (2014). Critique of everyday life. Volume III: From modernity to modernism (towards a metaphilosophy of daily life). In: Critique of everyday life. The one-volume edition. London, UK: Verso.

Gardiner, M.E. (2006). Everyday knowledge. Theory, Culture & Society, 23 (2-3), 205–207. Available from http://dx.doi.org/0.1177/026327640602300243 [Accessed 6 May 2016].

Perec, G. (2008). Species of spaces and other pieces. London, UK: Penguin Books.

Sandywell, B. (2004). The Myth of everyday life: toward a heterology of the ordinary. Cultural Studies, 18 (2), 160–180.

Schilling, D. (2003). Everyday life and the challenge to history in postwar France: Braudel, Lefebvre, Certeau. Diacritics, 33 (1), 23–40. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3805822 [Accessed 7 May 2016].

Sheringham, M. (2006). Everyday life: theories and practices from Surrealism to the present. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


edited 18 September, 2016 by Allan Parsons