- Everyday Life Studies:A Review
With the emergence of several new books, special journal issues, and even a "Reader," the field of everyday life studies can now be said to have its own canon. The insistent paradox of everyday life continues [End Page 175] to infuse new studies with energy and organization. The paradox can be put this way: to say this is ordinary is to give significance to what is insignificant. How do we discuss the ordinary when by its very nature it should remain overlooked? Scholars generally pursue this question either by prioritizing the philosophies of everyday life or by examining literary and cultural representations of the everyday. In this respect, the books listed above (and many more) fall into two categories: studies that explore, extend, and critique the foundational work of the Marxist sociologist Henri Lefebvre (Gardiner, Highmore, Roberts, Sheringham); and studies primarily interested in examining the texts of literary modernism (Phillips, Randall). Both approaches work to solve the paradox of the ordinary by maintaining a theoretical distance from actual practices or by exploring how we experience the everyday rather than the everyday's specific manifestations.
The literature of modernism preceded the theories of everyday life and helped to produce them. As Michael Sheringham illuminates in his exceptional and comprehensive study, Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present, Lefebvre's theoretical model and those influenced by it grew out of debates regarding la vie quotidienne in mid-century France. Decades earlier many modernist writers had noticed the phenomenon by which even the smallest aspects of bourgeois life were shaped by twentieth-century technologies and the insistent discourses of capitalism and consumerism, what the situationist movement led by Guy Debord would later refer to as "the colonization of everyday life." Lefebvre and others hoped that their theoretical analyses would liberate the everyday from these stifling forces, which modernist texts had accomplished by virtue of simply noticing the everyday. Lefebvre opens Everyday Life and the Modern World (1968)—an abridgement of the three-volume Critique of Everyday Life (1947–82)—by suggesting that James Joyce's Ulysses achieves something for which his work also strives: "Joyce's narrative rescues, one after the other, each facet of the quotidian from anonymity" (2).
The movement from the everyday in literature to the everyday as a theoretical subject occurs when literature gives up on it. That is, theorists like Lefebvre begin to write about the everyday when it becomes a question of whether the novel or postmodern writing more generally can represent the everyday through the conventions of realism. For instance, Ulysses attempts to catalog all facets of ordinary life while at the same time embracing the impossibility of such an enterprise, the impossibility of preserving the ordinary as ordinary. The extraordinary energy of much modernist experimentation is fueled by the problem of representation as a kind of inevitable transformation. The literature that followed the experiments of high modernism surrenders to this problem and moves in a different direction. Lefebvre's work thus has a stronger link to the literature of his time and place—Jean-Paul Sartre, Alain Robbe-Grillet and George Perec, for example—than to the literary experimentation of the high modernists.
When we take theories...