“Everyday Life”: A Feminist Analysis

bourges femme maison
Louise Bour­geois, Femme Maison, 1946-1947.

I. Introduction

In this arti­cle, I would like to offer a fem­i­nist read­ing of the “cri­tique of every­day life,” or per­haps a fem­i­nist intru­sion into the “cri­tique of every­day life.” The for­mula, as is well known, makes ref­er­ence to a project of large-scale analy­sis elab­o­rated by Henri Lefeb­vre between the end of the 1940’s and the begin­ning of the 1980’s. How­ever, the expres­sion “every­day life” is not solely in ref­er­ence to Lefeb­vre; it is an idea that returns reg­u­larly in 20th cen­tury thought. John Roberts’ work enti­tled Phi­los­o­phiz­ing the Every­day is one such notable exam­ple. In Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Praxis and the Fate of Cul­tural The­ory, the devel­op­ment of the cat­e­gory of “every­day life” is out­lined; an over­ar­ch­ing view which includes Lenin­ist cul­tural pol­i­tics, philoso­phies of praxis, psy­cho­analy­sis, and artis­tic avant-gardes.1 Before expe­ri­enc­ing a huge dif­fu­sion – but often also a depoliti­ciza­tion – within cul­tural stud­ies, the prob­lem­atic of the every­day life seemed nev­er­the­less insep­a­ra­ble from the for­mu­la­tion of a coun­ter-cul­tural pro­gram and a wide­spread and rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal project.

Although start­ing from het­ero­ge­neous the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tives, we are cur­rently wit­ness­ing the re-explo­ration of dif­fer­ent con­cep­tions of the pol­i­tics of the every­day. For exam­ple, with regards to the Lefeb­vrian cri­tique, we can include impor­tant emer­gences in the area of post­colo­nial cri­tique and transna­tional fem­i­nism.2 Within this field of research and start­ing from the idea of the cat­e­gory of “every­day life” as an “exper­i­men­tal con­cept” and an inter­pre­ta­tion of the cri­tique of every­day­ness as “gen­er­a­tive con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion,” fol­low­ing a sug­ges­tion by Eliz­a­beth Lebas,3 I will attempt to high­light its the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal effi­cacy for a fem­i­nist per­spec­tive.

II. The Domestic Sphere of Politics

When we make ref­er­ence to fem­i­nism, we allude to a vast store­house of prac­tices, the­o­ries, and issues that are often very diver­gent. With regards to “every­day life,” it is equally impos­si­ble to reduce the diver­sity of posi­tions to a sin­gu­lar approach. It suf­fices to think of the oppos­ing char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of domes­tic space and that for women, the every­day is rooted in their bod­ies, social posi­tions, and dif­fer­ent con­texts. For exam­ple, dur­ing the 1960’s and 1970’s, for most white Euro­pean or Amer­i­can fem­i­nists, the daily life at home was emblem­atic of sub­or­di­na­tion, whereas for many African Amer­i­can women the fam­ily and com­mu­nity were impor­tant sites of antiracist prac­tices.4 A vast the­o­ret­i­cal spec­trum unfolds between these two polar­i­ties; we can only inter­cept a few fre­quen­cies, with the closely-held con­vic­tion that, faced with this com­plex­ity, we must advance through the rec­i­p­ro­cal con­fronta­tion and hybridiza­tion of approaches.

Nev­er­the­less – and  in spite of the het­ero­gene­ity of these posi­tions – there is estab­lished in fem­i­nism an equiv­a­lence between the every­day and the sphere of microp­ol­i­tics (as rela­tional and domes­tic space) that pro­vides a his­tor­i­cal con­crete­ness to a con­cept oth­er­wise evanes­cent and mal­leable, includ­ing in meta­phys­i­cal terms (for exam­ple, the Lukác­sian and Hei­deg­ge­rian con­cept of Alltäglichkeit, and also to its evo­lu­tion in the Frank­furt school or its phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal or Haber­masian con­cep­tion as the so-called Lebenswelt). The seman­tic shift of every­day­ness to microp­ol­i­tics is accom­pa­nied by the dis­so­lu­tion of the lim­its of epis­te­mol­ogy and of pol­i­tics pre­vi­ously taken for granted: the dis­tinc­tion between what we pre­sume pol­i­tics to be or not to be, and between that which counts and that which does not count as polit­i­cal expe­ri­ence, falls within the scope of fem­i­nism. A polit­i­cal spa­tial­ity, with its respec­tive cat­e­go­rial tool­box, are brought into the con­ver­sa­tion.

At the heart of this rad­i­cal break, the analy­sis of the mate­ri­al­ity of the processes of pro­duc­tion of “en-gen­dered” sub­jec­tiv­i­ties – to bor­row from Teresa De Lau­retis – occu­pies an impor­tant space that defines a mate­ri­al­ist ori­en­ta­tion to fem­i­nism, which is also dis­tinct from the orig­i­nal “Marx­ist exper­i­men­ta­tions.”5 At the same time, it would be dis­hon­est to reduce the the­o­ret­i­cal exchanges between Marx­ism and fem­i­nism to a schematic form of argu­ment that, as empha­sized iron­i­cally by Donna Har­away, seems to pass from the analy­sis of pro­duc­tion to repro­duc­tion by anal­ogy, as an analy­sis of sex by exten­sion and to race in addi­tion.6 In effect, although such rea­son­ing is iden­ti­fi­able in cer­tain dog­matic ver­sions of insti­tu­tional social­ism, rad­i­cal mate­ri­al­ist fem­i­nisms have engaged sophis­ti­cated and effec­tive the­o­ret­i­cal devices, as well as prac­tices of strug­gle that have a par­tic­u­lar shape. For exam­ple, in terms of the cri­tique of every­day life its main con­tri­bu­tion con­sists in hav­ing iden­ti­fied, explored, and ren­dered polit­i­cally pro­duc­tive the link which runs between the dynamic biopol­i­tics of sub­jec­tiviza­tion, and the ini­ti­a­tion and sta­bi­liza­tion of the polit­i­cal state and forms of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion.

III. The Domestic Sphere and (Re)production

For fem­i­nism, the Lefeb­vrian project of the “cri­tique of the polit­i­cal econ­omy of the every­day” under­goes an impor­tant the­o­ret­i­cal tor­sion towards the def­i­n­i­tion of a “cri­tique of the biopo­lit­i­cal econ­omy of the every­day,” start­ing from an analy­sis of the sphere of repro­duc­tion. In effect, if Lefeb­vre artic­u­lates an impor­tant genealog­i­cal rea­son­ing about the link that is woven between every­day pro­duc­tion such as the aes­thetic mate­ri­al­ism of moder­nity (i.e. the spa­tio-tem­po­ral struc­ture of repet­i­tive expe­ri­ence in cap­i­tal­ism) and the processes of enter­ing the work­force (i.e. the biopo­lit­i­cal tech­nolo­gies of the pro­duc­tion of work­ers)7 , then fem­i­nist cri­tique expanded the hori­zon. Empha­sis on repro­duc­tion demon­strated how enter­ing the work­force – to return to the words of Lefeb­vre – tran­scends the lim­its of the pro­duc­tion of wage labor­ers and more­over coin­cides with a pro­duc­tion of dif­fer­en­ti­ated sub­jec­tiv­i­ties impli­cated glob­ally in exploita­tive processes. In 1975, when Lea Melandri – by trans­form­ing the Marx­ist expres­sion “orig­i­nal accu­mu­la­tion” – makes ref­er­ence to an “orig­i­nal infamy,” she intended to draw atten­tion to the struc­tural and sys­tem­atic rela­tion main­tained between the pro­duc­tion of the body – here the fem­i­nine body – and the pro­duc­tion of sur­plus-value.8

As demon­strated by Sil­via Fed­erici and Leopold­ina For­tu­nati in their text Il grande Cal­ibano (and sub­se­quently by Fed­erici, in Cal­iban and the Witch), the assem­blage of a repro­duc­tive body con­sti­tutes the first prop­erly cap­i­tal­ist machine, wherein the flesh and the “spirit” of women are inte­grated into fixed cap­i­tal.9 The dis­cur­sive régime that nat­u­ral­izes the fem­i­nine role (the so-called “fem­i­nine mys­tique”10), much like the cor­re­spond­ing map­ping of sexed bod­ies11, are inte­gral to the very same dis­posi­tif. From this point of view, the back­ward­ness of the domes­tic sec­tor of pro­duc­tion – which con­sti­tutes one of the dif­fer­ent forms of unequal devel­op­ment within cap­i­tal­ism – con­di­tions the kind of exploita­tion speci­fic to women’s activ­i­ties, who hence­forth appear as the first cyborg work­ers in his­tory.

As noted by Romano Alquati, the dou­ble func­tion of women’s repro­duc­tion – the repro­duc­tion of an other and of the “arte­fat­tura” (repro­duc­tion of self) – is, under cap­i­tal­ism, in fact con­verted into labor and mech­a­nized in such a way that the pro­duc­tion of self and the repro­duc­tion of social rela­tions come to con­verge.12 From this point of view, the word “fem­i­nin­ity” is a euphemism that describes the real sub­sump­tion of exis­tence, in the forms of per­for­ma­tive, affec­tive, servile, and sex­ual ser­vices. As noted by Fed­erici in his intro­duc­tion to the recent reis­sue of some of her works, “the attrib­utes of fem­i­nin­ity are in effect work func­tions.”13 

As a result, this opens up a space for a com­plex under­stand­ing of the his­tory and the geog­ra­phy of cap­i­tal­ism that includes and con­nects with the repro­duc­tive sphere and processes of accu­mu­la­tion. There­fore, on the one hand, we can trace a con­tin­u­ous line between pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion and, on the other hand, make evi­dent the link between phases of accu­mu­la­tion and crises in repro­duc­tion. This last ele­ment of analy­sis – that is found at the cen­ter of fem­i­nist reflec­tions like those of Fed­erici and Mari­arosa Dalla Costa dur­ing the 1980’s14 – ful­fills an indis­pens­able role for under­stand­ing the struc­tural rearrange­ment of cap­i­tal in times of cri­sis. In fact, it is evi­dent that aus­ter­ity poli­cies are coor­di­nated with with the pro­gres­sive dis­in­vest­ment from the sphere of repro­duc­tion and thus ini­ti­ate new forms of exploita­tion largely framed in terms of gen­der and race (includ­ing care work which, in every sense of the word, is effec­tively under­paid in either infor­mal or legal forms).

IV. The Domestic Sphere of the Revolution

Through­out the cri­tique of repro­duc­tion, every­day life is inte­grated into the cir­cuit of cap­i­tal. From this point of view, fem­i­nists have acquired the work­erist lesson wherein “at the height of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, the social rela­tion becomes one moment of the pro­duc­tion rela­tion,”15 but they broaden the scope to include the home, the kitchen, and the bed­room.16 In light of this diag­nos­tic, a revi­sion of the cri­tique of every­day life becomes nec­es­sary, one that opens up a new hori­zon of engage­ment, orga­ni­za­tion, and anti-cap­i­tal­ist strug­gle on the basis of which – to recall an ironic for­mula used by Fed­erici and Nicole Cox in 1975 – could be defined as “Coun­ter­plan­ning from the Kitchen.”17 The vast store­house of these kinds of strate­gies, which are by def­i­n­i­tion fem­i­nist and post­colo­nial, con­sti­tute a resource that is vital for polit­i­cal debate, inven­tion, and rein­ven­tion.

In recount­ing the rich­ness of these bod­ies of knowl­edge, I would like to briefly recall the his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence of the com­mit­tees of “the strug­gle for wages for house­work” that, dur­ing the 1970’s, pos­si­bly con­sti­tuted one of the most rad­i­cal expe­ri­ences of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion on the ter­rain of repro­duc­tion. The expe­ri­ence of these com­mit­tees, inau­gu­rated by a fem­i­nist assem­bly held in Padua in 1972, and orga­nized through an inter­na­tional net­work of col­lec­tives, rep­re­sented in its time an alter­na­tive to the social­ist-fac­to­ry­ist ide­ol­ogy which offered women exploita­tion in the fac­tory as the sole way of flee­ing domes­tic exploita­tion. Faced with false options between domes­tic work – which includes neu­roses, sui­cides, and desex­u­al­iza­tion, as noted by Fed­erici in a 1974 mil­i­tant text – and waged labor which included just as many patholo­gies, rad­i­cal fem­i­nists (Fed­erici, Selma James, Mari­arosa Dalla Costa, Alisa Del Re, and many oth­ers) advanced a pro­posal based on the self-deter­mi­na­tion of repro­duc­tion through the appro­pri­a­tion of “wages for house­work,” some­times re-bap­tized as “wages against house­work.”18

“Wages against house­work” was not a demand for mon­e­tary remu­ner­a­tions for activ­i­ties per­formed by women within the four walls of their homes; rather, it makes ref­er­ence to an elab­o­ra­tion of a polit­i­cal per­spec­tive on work, start­ing from the his­tor­i­cal posi­tion of women. Strictly speak­ing, its char­ac­ter was nei­ther revin­dica­tive nor sub­or­di­nate com­pared to the broader level of ongo­ing polit­i­cal con­flict. In effect, in ref­er­ence to Marx and, in par­tic­u­lar, of a work­erist read­ing, wages were con­ceived as the ex neg­a­tive mea­sure of unpaid labor. There­fore, claim­ing wages for the free labor of repro­duc­tion was meant to explode the mea­sure­ment of wages as such and, with this, bar­gain­ing over rela­tions of exploita­tion. The fem­i­nists tar­geted the myth of the con­tract, empha­siz­ing the ten­dency of the real sub­sump­tion of labor under cap­i­tal.

In effect, if the sphere of repro­duc­tion could not be seg­mented into speci­fic dura­tions of work and could not be con­tained in cer­tain spaces, the bound­ary between work and non-work tends to dis­ap­pear. From this point of view, the opac­ity of the cat­e­gory of “every­day life” acquires an impor­tant heuris­tic value, pre­cisely in so far as it blurs the ana­lyt­i­cal ten­dency towards sep­a­ra­tion. As noted by Fed­erici and Cox:

But we have never belonged to our­selves, we have always belonged to cap­i­tal every moment of our lives and it is time that we make cap­i­tal pay for every moment of it. In class terms this is to demand a wage for every moment we live at the ser­vice of cap­i­tal.19

Obvi­ously, this is a unmea­sur­able demand – that is to say, it works against the mea­sure of labor.

In light of the trans­for­ma­tions of cap­i­tal­ism over the last forty years, fem­i­nist analy­sis has acquired a rad­i­cal rel­e­vance. For exam­ple, the com­bined recourse to the phrases “the fem­i­niza­tion of labor” and “becom­ing-woman of pol­i­tics” simul­ta­ne­ously alluded to how the minor­ity form, which was out­side the con­tract, was pro­gres­sively becom­ing a major­ity.20 In other words, the uni­ver­sal­ist myth of wage bar­gain­ing reveals its par­tial char­ac­ter, his­tor­i­cally and geo­graph­i­cally sit­u­ated. Forms of con­tem­po­rary global labor are effec­tively sub­jected to a real “mul­ti­pli­ca­tion,” coin­cid­ing with a cap­il­lary diver­si­fi­ca­tion of forms of exploita­tion.21 

If the sit­u­a­tion is as we describe it, the “coun­ter-plan­ning in the kitchen” con­sti­tutes an impor­tant ref­er­ence, not only from a method­olog­i­cal per­spec­tive but also a pro­gram­matic one. On the one hand, the “fem­i­nist style” requires the joint con­sid­er­a­tion of biopo­lit­i­cal process of sub­ject for­ma­tion and forms of exploita­tion and, on the other hand, this very same style per­forms a kind of con­tin­u­ous the­o­ret­i­cal-polit­i­cal dis­place­ment, a strate­gic key. The prac­tices of fem­i­nism to which I have made ref­er­ence have proven them­selves capa­ble, for exam­ple, of orga­niz­ing a cam­paign against wages, pre­cisely from a non-waged sec­tor of pro­duc­tion. In this sense, they were capa­ble of politi­ciz­ing the rela­tions of social repro­duc­tion in terms of class.

What kind of dis­place­ment would be use­ful to put into prac­tice today? Or bet­ter yet, what ensemble/assemblage of dis­place­ments could we imag­ine in a oppo­si­tional per­spec­tive? These ques­tions focus the engage­ment and the ten­sion on a col­lec­tive pro­gram for con­tem­po­rary fem­i­nism. In effect, in a con­text of wide­spread casu­al­ized labor it becomes more dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a field of polit­i­cal reshuf­fling detached from the sphere of social repro­duc­tion and its autonomous and con­tentious orga­ni­za­tion.

This arti­cle was orig­i­nally pub­lished in Péri­ode.

– Trans­lated by Elis­a­beth Paque­tte

  1. John Roberts, Phi­los­o­phiz­ing the Every­day: Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Praxis and the Fate of Cul­tural The­ory (Lon­don: Pluto Press, 2006). 

  2. See Ste­fan Kipfer, Kan­ishka Goonewar­dena, Chris­tian Schmid, Richard Mil­grom (eds.), Space, Dif­fer­ence, Every­day Life: Read­ing Henri Lefeb­vre (New York: Rout­ledge, 2008). 

  3. Eliz­a­beth Lebas, “La vita quo­tid­i­ana nell’opera di Henri Lefeb­vre: un esperiemento”, in Paola Di Cori and Clotilde Pon­tecorvo (eds.), Tra ordi­nario e stra­or­di­nario: moder­nità e vita quo­tid­i­ana, (Roma: Carocci, 2007), 44-52. 

  4. See Les­ley John­son and Justine Lloyd, Sen­tenced to Every­day Life: Fem­i­nism and the House­wife (Berg: Oxford-New York, 2004); Bar­bara Smith (ed.), Home Girls: A Black Fem­i­nist Anthol­ogy (New Jer­sey: Rut­gers Uni­ver­sity Press, 2000). 

  5. See Donna Landry, Ger­ald MacLean, Mate­ri­al­ist Fem­i­nisms (Oxford: Black­well, 1993). 

  6. See Donna Har­away, Pri­mate Visions: Gen­der, Race, and Nature in the World of Mod­ern Sci­ence (New York: Rout­ledge, 1989), and Simi­ans, Cyborgs, and Women: The Rein­ven­tion of Nature (New York: Rout­ledge, 1991). 

  7. See Henri Lefeb­vre, De l’Etat. Théorie marx­iste de l’Etat de Hegel à Mao (Paris: Union Générale d’Éditions, 1976). 

  8. Lea Melandri, L’infamia orig­i­nale. Fac­ciamola finita con il cuore e la polit­ica (Roma: man­i­festolibri, 1997). 

  9. Sil­via Fed­erici, Cal­iban and the Witch. Women, the Body and Prim­i­tive Accu­mu­la­tion (New York: Autono­me­dia, 2004). 

  10. Betty Friedan, The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique (New York: Nor­ton, 2013). 

  11. See Teresa De Lau­retis, Sui generis. Scritti di teo­ria fem­min­ista (Milano: Fel­trinelli, 1996), 89-127. 

  12. Romano Alquati, Sulla ripro­duzione della capac­ità-umana-vivente oggi, unpub­lished. 

  13. Sil­via Fed­erici, Rev­o­lu­tion at Point Zero: House­work, Repro­duc­tion, and Fem­i­nist Strug­gle (New York: PM Press,  2013), 8. 

  14. See Sil­via Fed­erici, “The Debt Cri­sis, Africa and The New Enclo­sures”; Mari­arosa Dalla Costa, Gio­vanna Franca Dalla Costa (eds.), Donne e politiche del deb­ito. Con­dizione e lavoro fem­minile nella crisi del deb­ito inter­nazionale (Milano: Franco Angeli, 2002). 

  15. Mario Tronti, Ouvri­ers et Cap­i­tal, trans. Yann Moulier-Boutang, (Paris: Chris­tian Bour­geois, 1977), 60. 

  16. Fed­erici, Rev­o­lu­tion at Point Zero, op. cit., 8. 

  17. Ibid., 28-42. 

  18. Ibid., 15-24. 

  19. Ibid., 38. 

  20. See Judith Revel, “Devenir-femme de la poli­tique”, Mul­ti­tudes, n°12, 2003, 125-133; Cristina Morini, Per amore o per forza (Verona: Ombre Corte, 2010). 

  21. See San­dro Mez­zadra and Brett Neil­son, Bor­der as Method, or, the Mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of Labor (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, Lon­don, 2013). 

Author of the article

is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Università degli Studi di Torino and at Université Paris Ouest. Member of the research laboratory “Sophiapol” (Université Paris Ouest), her work focuses on the relationship between space, politics, and capitalist development with particular attention to the work of Henri Lefebvre and his possible theoretical interaction with Marxist-feminist radical theory and Italian “operaismo,” as well as his influence on contemporary critical geography. Active in feminist and queer movements, she is also a member of a team that promotes political and critical education for high school students in Northern Italy.