“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.